This is a guest blog post by Professor Lisa Bortolotti who was awarded an AHRC Fellowship in September 2013 for a project entitled “The Epistemic Innocence of Imperfect Cognitions”. Lisa Bortolotti is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. The project workshop, entitled “Costs and Benefits of Imperfect Cognitions”, was held at the University of Birmingham on 8 and 9th May 2014.

In conceiving a workshop to disseminate the preliminary results of my AHRC Fellowship I set out to bring together the amazing researchers who had inspired my project, as I wanted to know what they were up to in the latest research and I longed for their feedback on my own work. I also saw the workshop as an opportunity for people at different stages of their academic and scientific career, from graduate students to distinguished professors, and from different disciplinary backgrounds, from ethics and epistemology to experimental and clinical psychology, could meet and exchange ideas. Judged on the basis of such criteria, the workshop was a success.

The main idea behind the project and the workshop is that the perceived gap between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ cognition is to be challenged. We all have irrational beliefs and distorted memories, and we can all offer explanations that are not evidentially grounded, whether such cognitions are symptoms of a psychiatric disorder or just a manifestation of the statistically normal limitations of human cognition. What is really interesting about ‘imperfect cognitions’ is that, despite departing from reality, they have some benefits for the person who reports them. There has been a lot of attention on imperfect cognitions that can enhance wellbeing and confer adaptive advantages, but what if such cognitions also contributed to acquiring or retaining knowledge? This is the focus of the project, and a recurrent theme in our project blog.

Ryan McKay


On the first day of the workshop Ryan McKay (Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Royal Holloway, London) and philosopher Maarten Boudry (Post-doctoral researcher at the University of Ghent, Belgium) discussed costs and benefits of false beliefs. In some circumstances, false beliefs may be all we can hope for, due to our evidence being flawed or incomplete. In other circumstances, false beliefs may have net epistemic benefits, preserving existing knowledge or opening the way to new discoveries. Finally, false beliefs may have considerable psychological, physical, social and even biological benefits that compensate for epistemic losses. In the light of this, Ryan and Maarten asked when it is sensible to become an advocate of false beliefs.

Then we heard from Katerina Fotopoulou (Senior Lecturer at the Psychoanalysis Unit, Psychology and Language Sciences Division at University College London) who defended the view that anosognosia (the denial of illness, especially of paralysis) is caused by aberrant predictive coding. A prediction error can be described as a mismatch between what people expect (“I’ll be able to walk today as I was able to walk yesterday”) and how they experience themselves (“I can’t move my leg”). In anosognosia, the image of the self is not updated as a result of the experience. She argued that neurological disorders represent exaggerated instances of normally imperfect inferences about bodily states and the self.

Next, Professor Martin Conway (Head of Psychology at City University London) talked about the many ways in which autobiographical memory can fail to represent reality accurately, when people routinely condense and reinterpret key facts, and when they suffer from psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, amnesia and dementia. On the basis of fascinating case studies, Martin argued that autobiographical memory represents experienced reality and that ‘false’ memories can contribute to create meaningful connections among experiences that are important to the person.

Ema Sullivan-Bissett (part-time Post-doctoral researcher on my AHRC Fellowship) and I addressed the central topic of the project head-on, arguing respectively that confabulations and schizophrenic delusions can have epistemic as well as pragmatic benefits. Ema discussed some clinical and non-clinical instances of confabulation, considering their potential for protecting the person from undesirable truths, relieving stress and enhancing confidence. I reviewed some interesting psychological evidence suggesting that elaborated and systematized delusions in schizophrenia help people make sense of otherwise puzzling hypersalient experience. Delusions contribute to diminishing anxiety (in the short run at least) and enable the person to resume contact with the surrounding physical and social environment.

On day two, Petter Johansson and Lars Hall from the University of Lund brought us up to speed with their exciting studies concerning the phenomenon of choice blindness. As Petter and Lars put it, in many different domains, from consumer choice to aesthetic and moral judgement, “participants have been found to fail to notice mismatches between what they choose and what they get. In addition, they often confabulate arguments why they actually prefer the alternative they had initially rejected.” Although this opens up the possibility that people use reason explanation to justify choices they do not really endorse, it also suggests that there is some flexibility in people’s attitudes that can be put to good use.

Jules Holroyd

Our two final speakers, Jules Holroyd (Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Nottingham) and Miranda Fricker (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield), were concerned with implicit bias and implicit prejudice. Jules offered reasons to resist the claim that people are not responsible for behavior driven by their implicit biases because they are not aware of the presence, operation, or effects of such biases. Miranda discussed cases in which one may be guilty of implicit prejudice and yet not epistemically blameworthy. An example is ‘bad epistemic luck’ due to environmental reasons: when there is prejudice in the epistemic environment, and one has no reason to suspect that this is so, this results in the prejudice being inherited. Miranda argued that in such cases we can talk about “no-fault epistemic responsibility”.

If you want to know more about the Epistemic Innocence Project and to receive updates, please follow us on Twitter at @epistinnocence.epistinn logo

This is one of a series of guest blog posts written by AHRC Science in Culture Theme Award Holders. The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers. More information about the Technoscience, Law and Society Network can be found here. Follow us on twitter at @AHRCSciCulture for updates from the theme.