University Relations
Cognitive Critique Journal Club

Thursdays, 12:00 - 1:00 pm, Elliott Hall S204

September 21 - "Unconscious influences on decision making: A critical review"
             by Newell and Shanks

To what extent do we know our own minds when making decisions? Variants of this question have preoccupied researchers in a wide range of domains, from mainstream experimental psychology (cognition, perception, social behavior) to cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics. A pervasive view places a heavy explanatory burden on an intelligent cognitive unconscious, with many theories assigning causally effective roles to unconscious influences.

This article presents a novel framework for evaluating these claims and reviews evidence from three major bodies of research in which unconscious factors have been studied: multiple-cue judgment, deliberation without attention, and decisions under uncertainty. Studies of priming (subliminal and primes-to-behavior) and the role of awareness in movement and perception (e.g., timing of willed actions, blindsight) are also given brief consideration.

The review highlights that inadequate procedures for assessing awareness, failures to consider artifactual explanations of "landmark" results, and a tendency to uncritically accept conclusions that fit with our intuitions have all contributed to unconscious influences being ascribed inflated and erroneous explanatory power in theories of decision making. The review concludes by recommending that future research should focus on tasks in which participants' attention is diverted away from the experimenter's hypothesis, rather than the highly reflective tasks that are currently often employed.


September 14 - "Cognition does not affect perception: Evaluating the evidence for "top-down" effects,"
              by Firestone and Scholl

What determines what we see? In contrast to the traditional “modular” understanding of perception, according to which visual processing is encapsulated from higher-level cognition, a tidal wave of recent research alleges that states such as beliefs, desires, emotions, motivations, intentions, and linguistic representations exert direct, top-down influences on what we see. There is a growing consensus that such effects are ubiquitous, and that the distinction between perception and cognition may itself be unsustainable.

We argue otherwise: None of these hundreds of studies – either individually or collectively – provides compelling evidence for true top-down effects on perception, or “cognitive penetrability.” In particular, and despite their variety, we suggest that these studies all fall prey to only a handful of pitfalls. And whereas abstract theoretical challenges have failed to resolve this debate in the past, our presentation of these pitfalls is empirically anchored: In each case, we show not only how certain studies could be susceptible to the pitfall (in principle), but also how several alleged top-down effects actually are explained by the pitfall (in practice). Moreover, these pitfalls are perfectly general, with each applying to dozens of other top-down effects.

We conclude by extracting the lessons provided by these pitfalls into a checklist that future work could use to convincingly demonstrate top-down effects on visual perception. The discovery of substantive top-down effects of cognition on perception would revolutionize our understanding of how the mind is organized; but without addressing these pitfalls, no such empirical report will license such exciting conclusions.



Updated September 17, 2017