Fall 2018: PERCEPTION IN A SOCIAL WORLD: Sensing others and seeing ourselves

Human beings are both social and sentient. We pay close attention to the world around us and an important part of that world is social in nature. We not only see colors and hear sounds, we perceive threats, social status, shame, who’s being paid attention to, who’s being ignored, and the intentions of others. We also understand ourselves as being the subjects of such social perception. We are concerned with what others perceive when they gaze at us and read what we present to the world. As Nina Simone sang, “Please don’t let me be misunderstood.” We are inviting prominent scholars/speakers to explore different aspects of being social, being sentient, being perceivers, and being perceived, from a variety of different perspectives: philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, media studies, cultural studies, jurisprudence, and science fiction.

All talks are on Tuesday, 4:15-5:30 p.m. in Benson Auditorium unless otherwise noted.

Elizabeth Phelps

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Elizabeth A. Phelps, PhD
Pershing Square Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Harvard University

“Race and the brain: Insights from the neural systems of emotion and decisions”

Investigations of the neural systems mediating the processing of social groups defined by race, specifically Black and White race groups in American participants, reveals significant overlap with brain mechanisms involved in emotion. This talk will provide an overview of research on the neuroscience or race and emotion, focusing on implicit race attitudes. Implicit race attitudes are expressed without conscious effort and control, and contrast with explicit, conscious attitudes. In spite of sharp decline in the expression of explicit, negative attitudes towards outgroup race members over the last half century, negative implicit attitudes persist, even in the face of strong egalitarian goals and beliefs. Early research demonstrated that implicit, but not explicit, negative attitudes towards outgroup race members correlate with blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) signal in the amygdala – a region implicated in threat representations, as well as emotion’s influence on cognition. Building on this initial finding, we demonstrate how learning and decisions may be modulated by implicit race attitudes and involve neural systems mediating emotion, learning and choice. Finally, we draw on recent research on emotion regulation to suggest potential means to diminish the unintentional expression of negative, implicit race attitudes.

Cognitive neuroscientist Elizabeth A. Phelps received her PhD from Princeton University in 1989 and served on the faculty of Yale University until 1999. Later, she served as Julius Silver Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University and is currently the Pershing Square Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Harvard University. Her laboratory has earned widespread acclaim for its groundbreaking research on how the human brain processes emotion, particularly as it relates to learning, memory and decision making. Dr. Phelps is the recipient of the 21st Century Scientist Award from the James S. McDonnell Foundation and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Association for Psychological Science, the Society for Neuroethics, and Society for Neuroeconomics. Dr. Phelps was the President of the Society for Neuroeconomics, the Association for Psychological Science, the Society for Social and Affective Neuroscience, and served as the editor of the journal Emotion.

Shannon Spaulding

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Shannon Spaulding
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Oklahoma State University

“How We Understand Others”

Mindreading is the ability to understand a person’s behavior in terms of the psychological states that caused that behavior. Spaulding argues that mindreading is central to our ability to understand and interact with others but that most contemporary views of mindreading vastly underrepresent the diversity and complexity of mindreading. She articulates a new theory of mindreading that takes into account cutting edge philosophical and empirical research on in-group/out-group dynamics, social biases, and how our goals and the situational context influence how we interpret others’ behavior. Spaulding’s resulting theory of mindreading provides a more accurate, comprehensive, and perhaps pessimistic view of our abilities to understand others, with important epistemological and ethical implications. Deciding who is trustworthy, knowledgeable, and competent are epistemically and ethically fraught judgments: her new theory of mindreading sheds light on how these judgments are made and the conditions under which they are unreliable.

An Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Oklahoma State University, Dr. Spaulding’s general philosophical interests are in the philosophy of mind, philosophical psychology, and the philosophy of science. The principal goal of her research is to construct a philosophically and empirically plausible account of social cognition. She also has research interests in imagination, pretense, and action theory. She recently published a book on social cognition called How We Understand Others: Philosophy and Social Cognition.

Ted Chiang

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Ted Chiang
Award-winning science fiction writer

Ted Chiang is an award-winning writer of science fiction. Over the course of 25 years and 15 stories, he has won numerous awards including four Nebulas, four Hugos, four Locuses, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. The title story from his collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, was adapted into the Oscar-winning movie Arrival, starring Amy Adams and directed by Denis Villeneuve. He freelances as a technical writer and currently resides in Bellevue, Washington. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop.

Past Lectures

Siva Vaidhyanathan

Atherton Lecture
Monday, September 17, 2018
5:30-7 p.m.
(Followed by Atherton Dinner. Dinner is by invitation only.)

Siva Vaidhyanathan
Robertson Professor of Modern Media Studies and Director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia

“Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy”

If you wanted to build a machine that would distribute propaganda to millions of people, distract them from important issues, energize hatred and bigotry, erode social trust, undermine respectable journalism, foster doubts about science, and engage in massive surveillance all at once, you would make something a lot like Facebook. Of course, none of that was part of the plan.

In Antisocial Media, Siva Vaidhyanathan explains how Facebook devolved from an innocent social site hacked together by Harvard students into a force that, while it may make personal life just a little more pleasurable, makes democracy a lot more challenging. It’s an account of the hubris of good intentions, a missionary spirit, and an ideology that sees computer code as the universal solvent for all human problems. And it’s an indictment of how “social media” has fostered the deterioration of democratic culture around the world, from facilitating Russian meddling in support of Trump’s election to the exploitation of the platform by murderous authoritarians in Burma and the Philippines.

Facebook grew out of an ideological commitment to data-driven decision making and logical thinking. Its culture is explicitly tolerant of difference and dissent. Both its market orientation and its labor force are global. It preaches the power of connectivity to change lives for the better. Indeed, no company better represents the dream of a fully connected planet “sharing” words, ideas, and images, and no company has better leveraged those ideas into wealth and influence. Yet no company has contributed more to the global collapse of basic tenets of deliberation and democracy. Both authoritative and trenchant, Antisocial Media shows how Facebook’s mission went so wrong.

A media theorist and cultural historian, Dr. Vaidhyanathan is the author most recently of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy  (Oxford University Press, 2018). He also wrote The Googlization of Everything—and Why We Should Worry (2011). He has written three other books: Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction (2017), Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (2001) and The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash between Freedom and Control is Hacking the Real World and Crashing the System (2004). In addition, he has written for many periodicals, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate.com, BookForum, Columbia Journalism Review, Washington Post, The Guardian, Esquire.com, and The Nation. Vaidhyanathan directs the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, which produces a television show, a radio program, several podcasts, and the Virginia Quarterly Review magazine.

Vaidhyanathan’s talk is this year’s MCSI Atherton Lecture, named in honor of Pitzer’s first president, John Atherton, and his wife, Virginia Atherton.

Jody David Armour

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Sponsored by the Compton Foundation Visiting Fellows Fund

Jody David Armour
Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law, University of Southern California

“Unconscious Bias: The Social Construction of Black Criminals”

How do we reconcile our constitutional, political, and moral commitment to the “rule of law” with the reality of unconscious anti-black bias in police officers, prosecutors, judges, jurors, prison guards, parole boards, and probation officers? This talk will explore how social perceptions of wrongdoers—especially their race, gender, and class—determine how decision makers view their moral culpability and just desserts. Social perceivers do not make moral judgments of others on the basis of abstract principles or categorical imperatives but rather on the basis of factors within the perceivers themselves, factors such as empathy and attribution. Because of outgroup empathy bias and race-based attribution error, social perceivers like judges, jurors, and prosecutors make harsher moral judgments of black wrongdoers than of similarly situated white ones. These harsher moral judgments of black wrongdoers mean that legal decision makers will more readily find that black defendants meet the criminal law’s requirement of moral blameworthiness or “mens rea.”  In a word, black criminals are not merely found or discovered in the “fact-finding” process of a criminal trial, they are socially constructed through the biased mental processes of legal decision makers.

The author of the 1997 Negrophobia & Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America, Dr. Armour studies the intersection of race and legal decision making as well as torts and tort reform movements. His early work addressed three core concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement—namely, racial profiling, police brutality, and mass incarceration. He has recently completed a second book that examines law, language, and moral luck in the criminal justice system. In 2007, his work on the intersection of these topics grew into a unique interdisciplinary and multimedia analysis of social justice and linguistics, titled Race, Rap and Redemption, featuring performances by Ice Cube, Mayda del Valle, Saul Williams, Lula Washington Dance Theatre, Macy Gray Music Academy Orchestra, and Mailon Rivera. He has presented a TED talk, has toured major universities in Europe to speak about social justice (at the request of the U.S. State Department), and has published widely in the legal world, including Stanford Law Review, California Law Review, Vanderbilt Law Review, Boston College Law Review, and Southern California Review of Law and Women’s Studies, among others.

Kristen Andrews

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Kristin Andrews
York Research Chair in Animal Minds and Associate Professor of Philosophy, York University

“Normative Cognition in Great Apes”

Recent research challenges the idea that adult humans are the only normative actors; from various perspectives norms are being identified in children (Hamlin et al. 2007) and great apes (Krupenye and Hare 2018; Vincent et al. 2018; von Rohr 2012, 2015). While some argue that nonhumans countenance specific human norms (e.g. Bekoff and Pierce 2009; Brosnan and deWaal 2012; Rowlands 2012), others disagree (Kitcher 2011; Korsgaard 2006; Tomasello 2016). To move beyond this impasse, I offer another approach to examining the question of moral cognition in the great apes by examining the cognitive capacities required for normative thinking. Inspired by Bicchieri 2017’s account of social norms, I present an account of animal social norms and show that there are four cognitive capacities involved in normative thinking that are early developing in humans: identification of agents; sensitivity to in-group/out-group differences, social learning of group traditions, and the conscious awareness of appropriateness. Drawing on primate and infant research, I show that these capacities of naïve normativity are part of typical human social cognitive practices, they are necessary for moral cognition on any approach to ethics, they are seen in great apes, and hence they are likely an ancient human cognitive endowment.

Kristin Andrews is York Research Chair in Animal Minds and Associate Professor of Philosophy at York University, and she was elected to the College of the Royal Society of Canada in 2015. She works on issues in folk psychology and social understanding, the evolution of morality, methodology in animal cognition research, and animal rights.  Andrews’s books include Do Apes Read Minds? Toward a New Folk Psychology (MIT 2012) – a defense of her normative and pluralistic theory of folk psychology; The Animal Mind (Routledge 2015) – a survey of how empirical work on animal minds can help to inform debates in the philosophy of mind; and, written with a team of 15 philosophers, Chimpanzee Rights: The Philosophers Brief (Routledge 2018). Andrews has published her theoretical work in numerous journals including Mind and Language, Synthese, Biology and Philosophy, and Southern Journal of Philosophy.  Her scientific research on orangutan pantomime communication is published in Biology Letters and Communicative and Integrative Biology. In addition to her academic duties, she serves as a member of the Executive Board for The Borneo Orangutan Society Canada, which has the mission to promote conservation of orangutans and their habitat and to educate the public.