A Journal of Philosophy, Applied to the Real World


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Like Mele and Shepherd, I don’t believe that the news coming out of the cognitive sciences is as bad as some prominent scientists have claimed. The situationist literature on which they focus, for instance, demonstrates only that autonomous agency is sometimes constrained in ways we might not have suspected, not that we are never autonomous agents at all; much the same message is appropriately drawn from work on nonconscious biases and priming. Moreover, I agree with Mele and Shepherd that the same sciences that deliver us this moderately bad news also deliver good news, in the form of findings about how negative influences on our behavior from situational forces and nonconscious biases may be counteracted. However, I think the news is overall less good than they think, and our capacity to counter the negative influences through education (in particular) is more restricted than they claim. I will briefly explain why education is less powerful than Mele and Shepherd believe, before ending with some good news of my own

After outlining the ways in which situations can exert an unexpectedly large influence on behavior, Mele and Shepherd argue that we can counter these effects when we are aware of them. If I know about the bystander effect, for instance, I can wonder if it is at work in reducing my motivation to help in a particular case. By imagining how I would react were I the only witness, I might counteract the effect and produce better behavior in myself. I do not deny that this might sometimes work. But I think there are a number of reasons to doubt that educating people about the bystander effect will have any significant effects. First, there is a great deal of resistance among ordinary people (including educated people) to believing findings like these. Second, and worse, even among those who accept the findings there is little acceptance that these kinds of influences affect them (the great majority of physicians, for instance, accept that gifts from pharmaceutical companies influence their colleagues, but most deny that it influences them).