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09/22/2014

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Jason D'Cruz

Interesting post!

I wonder whether we can ever really purge science, and especially social psychology, of the bias in favor of counter-intuitiveness. The reason why many people are interested in social psychology is that they are interested to learn whether commonly held assumptions about human behavior and interaction are true. We might doubt that they are. But to learn that they are true after all is not very exciting. It doesn't feel like learning. (Even if it is).

Your point about our commonsense beliefs being in tension with each other is an apt reply to this. But I wonder whether our commonsense psychological beliefs really are like this. Consider again the platitudes you mentioned: "Absence makes the heart grow stronger" and "Out of sight, out of mind". I suspect that we already have commonsense beliefs about the scope of these beliefs. For example, if you know the date when your beloved will return, and that date is not too far off, and you think about your beloved a lot, then your beloved's absence will increase your desire. On the other hand, if you don't care very much about the absent person, and you are tempted to do something that they would frown upon, you are likely to ignore their preferences when they are gone. etc, etc, etc...

Now, if these commonsense beliefs about the scope of folk psychological platitudes were shown to be false by psychological science, that would be interesting. But the interest would like in their counter-intuitiveness, no?

Josh May

Nice post about an excellent excerpt! I totally agree with your points. I'll add this: Sometimes it's hard to tell what's intuitive or common sense anyhow. And sometimes what really is intuitive or common sense can still be in some sense surprising and important to prove empirically.

Here's an example. I'm teaching Hume in an Ethical Theory class right now and going over his views about sympathy. From the armchair, Hume (and others) have realized that sympathy/empathy is partial to those we care more about, are closer to, etc. Yet Hume also thought we can sometimes be genuinely altruistic. I think this is all really common sense, but we often forget these facts or don't dwell on them. The later experimental findings supporting Hume's ideas (see e.g. C. Daniel Batson's awesome work), which Hume didn't have access to, are in some sense surprising. Even if they're not surprising to some, they're important at least because some theorists deny the apparent truisms (e.g. egoists). At any rate, such findings are important to uncover scientifically to make sure we have an accurate picture of the mind, regardless of intuitiveness, as you say.

Shen-yi Liao

@ Jason

Thanks for the response. It's really hard for me to even make armchair conjectures about my own mental states, but I would guess my confidence in the scope claims are much lower than in the first-order truisms. So, even if I learn something "intuitive" of that sort, I could still feel like I've learned something because I get a big increase in confidence. Similarly for magnitude. But, that's just a guess.

@ Josh

Thanks for the reference! I agree, it's really hard to tell what's intuitive or not. We're fairly clever creatures, and we can assimilate evidence really quickly so that what used to be counter-intuitive now seems intuitive. Indeed, that's one thought behind the full title of Duncan Watts's book: Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer).

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3QD Prize 2012: Wesley Buckwalter