Friday, January 12, 2018

The mental inference fallacy

Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett is an expert on emotions, and she mostly denies that there is any such thing in the way that ppl think of emotions.

In particular, she claims that ppl are mostly wrong when they try to read the emotions of others. In the case of animals, she writes:
In the world of animal research, mental inference is rampant. For example, baby rats, when separated from their mother after birth, make a high-pitched noise that sounds to us like crying. Some scientists inferred that the brain circuitry responsible for the crying must be the circuitry for distress. But these baby rats aren’t sad. They’re cold. The sound is just a byproduct as the baby rats try to regulate their body temperature ​— ​a task normally done by their absent mothers. It has nothing to do with emotion. But to an observer, even a well-meaning and highly intelligent one, the sound is easily and automatically perceived as sadness.

Mental inference is normal. Children assign fascinating personalities to their toys. Adults do likewise with their cars. People constantly guess at the meanings of each other’s actions, from raised eyebrows to teenage eye rolls. But scientists in the lab must resist the lure of mental inference, lest they fall prey to the mental inference fallacy and unknowingly taint their research.
Her popular book is How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. She just gave a TED Talk on the subject.

I haven't read the book, but I suspect that she is wrong in that she is denying human nature. Humans have natural innate biological emotions, and they are not all learned. But I suspect that she is right that nearly all humans are making fallacious mental inferences all the time. She claims to have a lot of published research to back her up on this, and I believe it.

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