This project was funded by a European Research Council Consolidator Grant (ERC-2013-Co-G) awarded to Professor Lisa Bortolotti in order to explore the Pragmatic and Epistemic Role of Factually Erroneous Cognitions and Thoughts (PERFECT). The project started in October 2014 and ended in September 2019. The project featured three post-doctoral fellows, two PhD students, and the participation of Dr Michael Larkin from Aston University.
PERFECT aimed to establish whether cognitions that are inaccurate in some important respect can ever be good from a pragmatic or an epistemic point of view. Can delusional beliefs, distorted memories, and confabulatory explanations, which are frequent in the non-clinical population and also listed as symptoms of psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and dementia, have redeeming features?
- Challenge current frameworks of epistemic evaluation in order to acknowledge that cognitions can contribute to knowledge and self-knowledge without meeting the standards of truth and accuracy, and to take into account constraints on cognitive capacities (perception, reasoning, and memory).
- Challenge current accounts of delusions, memory distortions, and confabulations in the psychological literature in order to move towards accounts which are sensitive to the potential epistemic benefits of such cognitions and to their role in supporting a unified and coherent sense of agency.
- Inform clinical interventions on people with psychiatric disorders on the basis of the role of delusions, memory distortions, and confabulations in the preservation and acquisition of relevant knowledge and in the development of a self-narrative which supports agency.
- Provide strong theoretical reasons to challenge the perceived discontinuity between normal and abnormal cognition and show that a demarcation between normal and pathological cannot be meaningfully based on the epistemic features of delusions, memory distortions and confabulations.
Mid-term review of the project (March 2017)
PERFECT asks whether there are any benefits in adopting beliefs that are either inaccurate or irrationally formed. The project is interested in a range of beliefs and in a range of benefits. Beliefs can describe the past, account for the present, or predict the future, and can be either widespread in the non-clinical population (such as stereotypes and optimistically biased beliefs) or more unusual and symptomatic of mental health issues (such as delusions in schizophrenia and distorted memories in dementia). Benefits can be psychological (related to wellbeing or good functioning), pragmatic (related to success), or epistemic (related to knowledge and understanding).
By drawing attention to both costs and benefits of inaccurate or irrational beliefs, the project produced outputs that: (1) acknowledge and examine the contributions of such beliefs to the way people engage with the surrounding environment, widening the scope of epistemic evaluation in philosophy; (2) enhance our understanding of how beliefs are formed and why they are resistant to change, informing theories in cognitive science; and (3) emphasise the continuity between so-called "normal" and "abnormal" cognition, showing how beliefs in the clinical and non-clinical population can be at the same time false and useful.
Final review of the project (September 2019)
The project developed a unique approach to challenging mental health stigma and divisive "us and them" attitudes by shaping public perceptions of cognition, rationality, and mental health.
After the last round of revisions, the project monograph (Epistemic Innocence by Lisa Bortolotti) was accepted for publication and has appeared with Oxford University Press in June 2020. Another book and two PhD theses were produced during the length of the project. 46 journal articles and 10 book chapters were published, contributing to all three strands of the project: (a) belief; (b) memory; and (c) confabulation. We also edited two special issues of journals and produced a policy brief in 2020.
The project team achieved its goal to organise one academic workshop per strand, three in total (False and Useful Beliefs, London 2016; Memory, Cambridge 2017; Confabulation, Oxford 2018) and two special issues of good philosophy journals emerged to gather the contributions and additional papers on the topic. Further talks and symposia were organised throughout the project, such as an Epistemic Innocence Symposium in Croatia in September 2018 where four speakers discussed project results on belief, bias, confabulation, and emotion.
The project team was extremely active in organising public engagement events and creating further opportunities for outreach. In total we organised and sponsored six events for the annual Arts and Science Festival in Birmingham, with topics ranging from beliefs about climate change to the nature of obsessive-compulsive disorder. We held two such public engagement events in summer 2019 to celebrate the end of the project: an art exhibition on the power of imagination to heal (26 June), and a film screening on the effects of domestic abuse on young people (18 June). Both events attracted engaged audiences, generated opportunities for discussion, and drew attention to the project’s central themes and messages. A full report of the events was posted on the blog.
Further, the team was always proactive in talking to the media about their project work. For instance, Stammers featured on BBC 4’s Analysis’s special on implicit bias and in a BBC news article about implicit bias in June 2017. In August 2019, Bortolotti was asked by the BBC (BBC5 radio and BBC World News TV) to comment on some research news concerning benefits of optimism for longevity, and she discussed the project finding that optimistically biased beliefs support agency in some circumstances. Her comments also appeared on the Guardian, in a piece discussing the new research on optimism.
Project PERFECT was compliant with the BPA/SWIP Good Practice Scheme and had policies and procedures in place that encouraged the representation of women in philosophy.
In November 2015 Dr Michael Larkin, Professor Lisa Bortolotti, and Dr Ema Sullivan-Bissett were featured in the Birmingham Heroes Campaign on research that matters. Posters, banners, and web content focussed on PERFECT's aim to challenge the stigma associated with mental illness.
In October 2017 Lisa Bortolotti participated in a TEDxBrum event on the theme of Perspectives and presented the aims of the project to an audience of 1,400 people at the Birmingham Hippodrome.
In November 2017 Lisa Bortolotti appeared in a new Birmingham Heroes Campaign with Professor Matthew Broome, Professor Paul Burstow, and Dr Rachel Upthegrove, celebrating the University's commitment to improve youth mental health.