Cognitive Science Colloquium

Fall 2009

All meetings take place on Thursdays, 3.30-5.30 pm in Bioscience Research Building 1103, unless otherwise indicated.


September 10 Virginia Valian (Linguistics, CUNY)

Title: How abstract is early syntax?
Two contrasting positions about children's early syntax are a) that it is not abstract and consists primarily of word collocations that have appeared in the input and b) that it is abstract and consists of syntactic categories in hierarchical structures. I argue for the second position, using data from two-year-old English-speaking children's spontaneous speech, two-year-old Hebrew-speaking children's spontaneous speech, and three-year-old English-speaking children's performance in a syntactic priming task. I consider the implications of the results for the nativism-empiricism debate.

September 24  — Abigail Marsh (Psychology, Georgetown) [NOTE: in BIO-PSYCH 1208]

Title: Empathy, psychopathy, and fear
Why do people help or harm others?  Many of us have followed the trial of psychopaths like the BTK killer or the Craigslist killer, or have marveled at the good works of real life heroes like Wesley Autrey, the "Subway Superman," and have wondered why people like them behave so cruelly or kindly towards others.  Empathy is the emotional response usually cited as promoting altruism or inhibiting aggression, but the term has many meanings--from understanding others' thoughts to mirroring their emotions to feeling compassion.  I will be talking today about work that my colleagues and I have conducted in both healthy individuals and those with psychopathic traits that illuminates the mechanisms that lead to empathy-relevant behaviors.  I will focus in particular on emotional cues like the fearful facial expression. This expression appears to elicit empathy in those who see it.  Moreover, highly altruistic people seem to process the expression especially well, and individuals with psychopathic traits process it especially poorly.  I will discuss neuroimaging as well as behavioral studies that suggest the mechanisms behind these patterns.

October 8 —       Colin Wilson (Cognitive Science, Johns Hopkins)  -- CANCELED --

October 22 —     Alexander Todorov (Psychololgy, Princeton)

Title: Evaluating faces on social dimensions
The belief that personality can be read from a person’s face has persisted over the centuries. Moreover, social psychologists have accumulated evidence that trait judgments from faces predict important social outcomes ranging from electoral success to sentencing decisions, although these judgments are not necessarily accurate. Why, then, do people make these inaccurate judgments, and why are they made so reliably? In this talk, I will outline a comprehensive model of evaluation of faces on social dimensions. According to this model, trait inferences can be represented within a two-dimensional space defined by valence/trustworthiness and power/dominance evaluation of faces. Inferences along these dimensions are based on similarity to expressions signaling approach/avoidance behavior and features signaling physical strength, respectively, suggesting that trait inferences from faces originate in functionally adaptive mechanisms. One interpretation is that face evaluation involves an overgeneralization of adaptive mechanisms for inferring harmful intentions and the ability to cause harm. I will also discuss the potential neural mechanisms underlying face evaluation.

November 5 —     Judy DeLoache (Psychology, Virginia)

Title: Becoming Symbol-Minded
Every society has a wealth of symbols and symbol systems that support cognition and communication, and all children must master a variety of symbolic artifacts to participate fully in their society.  My research shows that in the course of learning to use various symbolic representations—including pictures, models, and replica objects—infants and young children experience a surprising amount of difficulty.  They often fail to note the distinction between symbols and their referents, behaving toward symbolic artifacts as if they were what they stand for.  The extended process of becoming symbol-minded begins in the first year of life, as infants start to learn about the nature of pictures:  Through experience, they discover both what pictures are and what they are not.  Slightly older children have substantial difficulty understanding and using scale models, but rapidly come to appreciate the nature and use of this type of symbol.  At the same time, very young children make dramatic errors in which they try to interact with a miniature representational artifact as if it were its larger counterpart.  Mastery of these different types of symbolic objects involves developmental progress in multiple domains.

November 19 —  Bernhard Hommel (Psychology, Leiden)

Title: How we do what we want: An ideomotor approach to voluntary action.
Abstract: Voluntary action is anticipatory and, hence, must depend on associations between actions and their perceivable effects. This talk provides an overview of recent behavioral, electrophysiological, and imaging work from our lab on the acquisition and functional role of action-effect associations in infants, children, and adults. It shows that action effects are acquired from very early on and are still integrated spontaneously in adults. Once acquired, action effects serve to select actions by means of a network including the (developing) frontal cortex/SMA, connecting via hippocampus to the perceptual areas that code for sensory action effects. However, the impact and role of action-effect codes are regulated by the agent's processing mode and intentions.

December 10 —  Stephen Stich (Philosophy & Center for Cognitive Science, Rutgers)

Title:  The Evolution of Morality?
In “A Framework for the Psychology of Norms,” Chandra Sripada and I developed a theory about the psychological mechanisms underlying human norms. If that theory is on the right track, people will often internalize norms that reduce their own biological fitness. It might be thought that no such psychological mechanism could possibly evolve. But that would be a mistake. In this talk I’ll explain why it was all but inevitable that natural selection would lead to norm psychology in our species, once we had acquired the ability to learn from one another. The account I’ll offer explains why many human norms foster cooperative or pro-social behavior. It also explains why many human norms lead to ethnic hatred and morally repugnant behavior. If the account is correct, these norms will be very difficult to dislodge. (Though I’ll present a brief sketch of the Sripada & Stich theory at the beginning of the talk, the “Framework” paper is strongly recommended as background reading. This is available from the “discussion” page of the Colloquium website.)