Talks

Here you will find information about our project-related talks.

Lisa Bortolotti, "What is positive about Positive Illusions?", British Society for the Philosophy of Science Annual Conference, 7-8th July 2016.

Abstract: There is some consensus in the empirical literature that positive illusions have beneficial effects. In the talk I am asking in what circumstances they bring benefits and what type of benefits they bring. One hypothesis is that positive illusions bring psychological benefits in those circumstances in which, despite being unrealistic, they only lead to small distortions of reality. Another hypothesis is that they are psychologically beneficial in those circumstances in which they lead the agent to experience positive affect. Both hypotheses are plausible, but I believe there is a more comprehensive story to tell about the benefits of positive illusions, a story based on the capacity that at least some forms of optimism have to turn us into successful agents. I suggest that positive illusions are beneficial, and not just psychologically, when they enable us to see ourselves as competent, efficacious, and largely coherent agents who can attain the goals they set for themselves if they persevere in the pursuit of such goals.

Anneli Jefferson, "On Thinking you're Great and Being Good", Society for Applied Philosophy Annual Conference, Belfast, 1-3rd July 2016

Abstract: We humans are biased to think that we are better than we are, have more control over events than we do and that our future will be better than it is objectively likely to be. We also hold these positive illusions regarding our moral character and actions. In this paper I address the question whether this ‘holier than thou’ effect is conducive to moral behaviour or hinders it. I argue that overestimating the moral quality of our past and present characteristics results in a number of undesirable consequences, as it removes incentives to improve ourselves and can also lead to a slippage in moral standards. I consider an objection from self-consistency motivations, according to which unrealistically positive beliefs about our moral character have the positive effect of leading us to act better than we would otherwise in order to retain a consistent self-image; and show that this objection is unconvincing. Unrealistic optimism about the future, on the other hand, may either result from factors which are detrimental to realising our moral intentions or be a sign of moral commitment. In some cases, unrealistic optimism reflects an unrealistic, overly narrow assessment of the factors affecting our future behaviour. In this case, it detracts from moral conduct in the future, as it leads to lack of preparedness for moral challenges. However, confidence in one’s future moral conduct may also be a sign of the commitment to act well. In as far as it is indicative of a firm intention to do well, we should welcome it. One and the same level of belief in one’s future virtuousness may therefore either stem from naiveté or from extreme commitment. It is only when we have established which it is that we can evaluate it.
Anneli Jefferson, "Is Optimism Good for Us?" Hope and Optimism midpoint Collaboratory, Estes Park, Colorado, 14th to 17th June 2016

Anneli presented the optimism project and the different issues Lisa and Anneli have been working on over the last year at the Hope and Optimism conference. (no abstract)

Lisa Bortolotti, "Rationality, Success and Wellbeing", Wellbeing Research on Campus, Westmere PGR Hub, 20th May 2016.

Abstract: Lisa Bortolotti will talk about her current projects, PERFECT and Costs and Benefits of Optimism, and the way in which empirically-informed philosophical research can help challenge the stigma associated with mental illness and contribute to healthcare policy. In particular, she will argue that (1) there is continuity between irrational beliefs in the clinical and non-clinical population, and that (2) even irrational beliefs can have psychological and epistemic benefits.

Lisa Bortolotti, "Agency without Rationality", Inaugural Lecture, University of Birmingham, 9th May 2016.

Abstract: In her inaugural lecture, Lisa Bortolotti argues that rationality should be seen as an aspiration rather than a precondition for human agency. Despite their obvious limitations, typical human agents can identify, pursue, and often achieve their goals, navigating the surrounding physical and social environment with some degree of success.

Lisa Bortolotti, "Irrational but Useful Beliefs", Collegio del Maino Wednesday Philosophy Seminar Series, Pavia, 30th March 2016.

Abstract: Some of our beliefs are epistemically irrational (in the sense that they are not backed up by and responsive to evidence) but they are nonetheless biologically or psychologically adaptive. This seems to be the case for some self-enhancing beliefs in the context of the positive illusions literature. In this paper I ask to what extent such beliefs are also epistemically beneficial.


Lisa Bortolotti, "Optimism and Agency", Optimism Workshop, London, 26th February 2016.

Abstract: We need a theoretical framework for understanding the conflicting messages coming from the empirical literature on optimism bias and positive illusions. On the one hand, the optimism bias and positive illusions seem to have a number of psychological benefits for agents: they lead to higher motivation and persistence in pursuing goals, and ultimately to achieving those goals. Positive illusions also support personal growth and a sense of control: events are seen as stressful when the agent does not get a sense that she can control them, but agents who are curious and engaged see challenges as opportunities to grow and improve. On the other hand, the optimism bias and positive illusions have been reported to have negative effects. Optimism may prevent agents from coming to terms with how things actually are and from acknowledging and preparing for likely risks and threats. Further, it has been suggested that positive illusions may interfere with success in personal relationships and with coping strategies. Finally, optimism bias and positive illusions may be associated with narcissism and aggression. What is the message we should take home then? Are the optimism bias and positive illusions something beneficial or harmful? I will argue that they are beneficial when they do support our sense of agency and they are harmful when they interfere with it. The successful agent is positive and motivated, but not blind to the constraints of her physical and social environment. 

Anneli Jefferson, "Is Optimism an Adaptation?" Optimism Workshop, London, 25th February 2016

Abstract: When individuals display cognitive biases, they are prone to developing systematically false beliefs. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that rather than being a flaw in human cognition, biases may actually be design features. In my paper, I assess the claim that the optimism bias is such a design feature. Proponents of this claim have pointed out that when individuals make decision under uncertainty, it can be advantageous to err on the side of overestimating one’s chances of success if the potential gains through success are high and the potential costs of failure are low. I assess whether such an explanation for the optimism bias is plausible by exploring whether the kind of optimistically biased thinking that people exhibit is indeed sensitive to costs and benefits of failure in the way the model would predict. I also compare this type of explanation to alternative explanations for optimistically biased thinking.

Lisa Bortolotti, "Are Self-Enhancing Beliefs Epistemically Innocent?", PERFECT 2016 False but Useful Beliefs Workshop, London, 4th February 2016.

Abstract: In some contexts, for instance when asked to form judgements or make predictions about themselves, people have the tendency to adopt and maintain beliefs that are neither well supported by evidence nor responsive to counter-evidence. In this talk, I focus on positive illusions, that is, systematic tendencies to acquire and maintain excessively positive beliefs about oneself and make excessively optimistic predictions about one’s future. In the empirical literature, positive illusions have been found to make a positive contribution to psychological wellbeing. I am interested in whether self-enhancing beliefs can also make a positive contribution to a person’s epistemic functionality, that is, the person’s capacity to perform well epistemically by acquiring, retaining, and using knowledge, and by exercising intellectual virtues. I argue that self-enhancing beliefs contribute to one’s epistemic functionality by enhancing socialisation which leads to greater exchange of information and feedback. Moreover, they support one’s sense of self as that of a unified, largely coherent, and effective agent. On the basis of such considerations, I propose that self-enhancing beliefs can be correctly characterized as epistemically innocent, which means that they have significant epistemic benefits for the agent, which the agent could not attain via less epistemically costly cognitions.


Anneli Jefferson, "Born to be Biased: Evolutionary accounts of unrealistic optimism", Language and Cognition Seminar, King's College London, 26th January 2016

Abstract: When individuals display cognitive biases, they are prone to developing systematically false beliefs. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that rather than being a flaw in human cognition, biases may actually be design features. In my talk, I assess the claim that the optimism bias is such a design feature. One prominent proposal is that it is a type of error management strategy. Proponents of this claim have pointed out that when individuals make decision under uncertainty, it can be advantageous to err on the side of overestimating one’s chances of success if the potential gains through success are high and the potential costs of failure are low. I consider the predictions such a model would yield and then assess whether the kind of optimistically biased thinking that people exhibit is indeed sensitive to costs and benefits of failure in the way the model would predict. I show that the error management account is unlikely to be correct, and briefly consider some alternative evolutionary accounts of unrealistic optimism.

Anneli Jefferson, "How unrealistic is unrealistic optimism?" Workshop 'Beliefs that feel good', University of Basel, Switzerland, 16th December 2015

Abstract: Optimistically biased beliefs are one type of beliefs which that feel good but seem to be false or at least unwarranted. In this paper, I first explain what the optimism bias is, then I discuss the question whether optimistically biased beliefs are false and whether they are irrational. In order to do so, I look at both motivational and cognitive accounts of how unrealistic beliefs arise. Using the notions of deontological and consequentialist rationality, I assess when optimistically biased beliefs should count as irrational.This paper straddles philosophy and psychology, as it is both concerned with a normative evaluation of the optimism bias and with reaching a better understanding of the psychological phenomenon, its causes and effects.

Anneli Jefferson, "Born to be biased? Evolutionary accounts of unrealistic optimism." Philosophy of Science Seminar, Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 30th November 2015

Abstract: When individuals display cognitive biases, they are prone to developing systematically false beliefs. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that rather than being a flaw in human cognition, biases may actually be design features. In my paper, I assess the claim that the optimism bias is such a design feature and that it is a type of error management strategy. Proponents of this claim have pointed out that when individuals make decision under uncertainty, it can be advantageous to err on the side of overestimating one’s chances of success if the potential gains through success are high and the potential costs of failure are low. I consider the predictions such a model would yield and then assess whether the kind of optimistically biased thinking that people exhibit is indeed sensitive to costs and benefits of failure in the way the model would predict. I show that the error management account is unlikely to be correct.

Lisa Bortolotti,"When is optimism good for you?", COGS Research Seminar, University of Sussex, 24th November 2015

Abstract: Three forms of the optimism bias are commonly identified in the psychological literature: (1) the illusion of control is an exaggerated belief in our capacity to control independent, external events; (2) self-enhancement is the perception of ourselves as more positive than is the case (“I am more talented than the average person”); and (3) unrealistic optimism is the perception that our future will be largely positive and will yield progress. The standard view is that the optimism bias gives rise to beliefs that are epistemically irrational but psychologically beneficial. In the paper I reject the view that, in general, realistic cognitions negatively affect wellbeing, whereas optimistic ones contribute to it. Rather, I suggest that those forms of optimism that do not hinder but promote the agent’s capacity to engage with her physical and social environment have both psychological and epistemic benefits.

Anneli Jefferson, "False beliefs with a purpose", Workshop on Falsity, Birkbeck University, 27th June 2015

Abstract: Both pre-theoretically and on many philosophical accounts of belief, representing the world accurately is taken to be the purpose of belief. However, the literature on psychological biases shows that our beliefs about the world and ourselves are often systematically skewed. One example for this is the optimism bias, the tendency to think that we are better than average, that we are less likely to experience negative life events than others and more likely to experience positive ones. In this context, two important questions arise: are optimistically biased beliefs actually false and if, so, is this a problem or is it in fact a desirable and useful feature of our thinking? There are a number of methodological and epistemological problems in establishing the falsity of specific cases of optimistically biased belief: For example, when 70% of the population take themselves to be better than average drivers, 20 percent must be wrong. However, it is less easy to establish which individuals have made an error. Similarly, there are cases where it is hard to assess whether people’s assessments of risks, and failure to respond to evidence that suggests a high risk of bad things happening to them, is a case of mistaken thinking or whether they have information unavailable to the outside observer. There is however sufficient evidence to be able to say that frequently, people’s views are unrealistically positive and they are mistaken when they assess their own abilities and prospects. What is more, psychologists argue that unrealistic optimism is a desirable feature of human thinking. It has been argued that optimistically biased thinking is an evolutionary adaptation which has survived because it encourages risk taking, and where potential payoffs are high and risks low, taking risks is a good thing. Furthermore, it is frequently pointed out that unrealistic optimism is absent in depressive individuals, therefore, so the thinking goes, it is at the very least part of healthy human cognition. There is a perception that the optimism bias is beneficial in moderation, because it helps us persevere in our projects and makes us feel better about ourselves. If we were to take this psychological reasoning on board and incorporate it into a philosophical account of the purpose of belief, we would have to conclude that truth on its own is not the primary goal of belief. Rather, beliefs are representations that help us navigate the world, and frequently, it is truth that is most relevant to this purpose, but there are specific instances where falsity serves human needs and purposes better.