Did my aliefs make me do that? Ezio Di Nucci thinks we need a different way of explaining automatic behaviour. By automatic, he means such things as habits and ‘primed’ or nudged behaviour; quite a lot of what we do is not the consequence of a consciously pondered decision; yet it manages to be complex and usually sort of appropriate.
Di Nucci quotes a number of examples, but the two he uses most are popcorn and rudeness. Popcorn is an example of a habit. People who were in the habit of eating a lot of popcorn at the cinema still ate the same amount even when they were given stale popcorn. People who did not have the habit ate significantly less if it was stale; as did people who had the habit if they were given it outside the context of a cinema visit (showing that they did notice the difference; it wasn’t just that they didn’t care about the quality of the popcorn).
Rudeness is an example of ‘primed’ behaviour. Subjects were exposed to lists of words which either exemplified rudeness or courtesy; those who had been “primed” with rude words went on to interrupt an interviewer more often. There are many examples of this kind of priming effect, but there is now a problem, as Di Nucci notes; many of these experiments have been badly hit by the recent wave of problems with reproducibility in psychological experiments. It is so bad that some might advocate putting the whole topic of priming aside for now until more of the underlying research has been underpinned. Di Nucci proceeds anyway; even if particular studies are invalidated the principle probably captures something true about human psychology.
So how do we explain this kind of mindless behaviour? Di Nucci begins by examining what he characterises as a ‘traditional’ account given by action theory, particularly citing Donald Davidson. On this view an action is intentional if, described in a particular way, it corresponds with a ‘pro’ attitude in the agent towards actions with a particular property and the belief that the section has that property. For Di Nucci this comes down to the simple view that an action is intentional if it corresponds with a pre-existing intention.
On that basis, it doesn’t seem we can say that the primed subject interrupted unintentionally. It doesn’t really seem that we can say that the subject ate stale popcorn unintentionally either. We might try to say that they intended to eat popcorn and did not intend to eat stale popcorn; but since they clearly knew after the first mouthful that it was stale, this doesn’t really work. We’re left with no distinct account of automatic behaviour.
Di Nucci cites two other arguments. In another experiment, people primed to be helpful are more likely to pick up another person’s dropped pen; but if the pen is visibly leaking the priming effect is eliminated. The priming cannot be operating at the same level as the conscious reluctance to get ink on one’s fingers or the latter would not erase the former.
Another way to explain the automatic behaviour is to attribute it to false beliefs; but that would imply that the behaviour was to some degree irrational, and neither interrupting nor eating popcorn is actually irrational.
What, then, about aliefs? This is the very handy concept introduced by Tamar Szabo Gendler back in 2008; in essence aliefs are non-conscious beliefs. They explain why we feel nervous walking on a glass floor; we believe we’re safe, but alieve we’re about to fall. They may also explain unconscious bias and many other normal but irrational kinds of behaviour. I rather like this idea; since beliefs and desires are often treated as a pair in studies of intentionality, maybe we could have the additional idea of unconscious desires, or cesires; then we have the nicely alphabetic set of aliefs, beliefs, cesires and desires.
Aliefs look just right to deal with our problems. We might believe the popcorn is stale, but alieve that cinema popcorn is good. We might believe ourselves polite but alieve that interrupting is fine.
Di Nucci suggests three problems. First, he doesn’t think aliefs deal with the leaky pen, where the inclination to help disappears altogether, not partially or subject to some conflict. Second, he thinks aliefs end up looking like beliefs. He cites the case of George Clooney fans who are less willing to pay for George’s bandanna if it has been washed. Allegedly this because of an irrational alief that a bandanna contains George’s essence; but the conscious belief that it has been washed interferes with this. If aliefs can interact with beliefs like this they must be similarly explicit and propositional and so not really different from beliefs. To me this argument doesn’t carry much force because there seem to be lots of better ways we could account for the Clooney fan behaviour.
Third, he thinks again that irrationality is a problem; aliefs are supposed by Gendler to be arational, but the two regular examples of automatic behaviour seem rational enough.
I think aliefs work rather well; if anything they work too well. We can ask about beliefs and challenge them; aliefs are not accessible and we are free to attribute any mad aliefs we like to anyone if they get our explanatory dirty work done. There’s perhaps too much of a “get out jail free” about that.
Anyway, if all that is to be rejected, what is the explanation? Di Nucci suggests that automatic behaviour simply fills in when we don’t want to waste attention on the detail. Specifically, he suggests they come into play in “Buridan’s Ass” cases; where we are faced with choices between alternatives that are equally good or neutral, as often happens. It’s pointless to direct our attention to these meaningless choices, so they are left to whatever habits or priming we may be subject to.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but I wonder whether it doesn’t just retreat a bit; the question was really how well-formed actions come from non-conscious thought. Di Nucci seems in danger of telling us that automatic action is accounted for by the fact that it is automatic.