pp 1–18 | Cite as

(Un)reasonable doubt as affective experience: obsessive–compulsive disorder, epistemic anxiety and the feeling of uncertainty

  • Juliette VazardEmail author
Reasonable Doubt
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Reasonable Doubt: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives


How does doubt come about? What are the mechanisms responsible for our inclinations to reassess propositions and collect further evidence to support or reject them? In this paper, I approach this question by focusing on what might be considered a distorting mirror of unreasonable doubt, namely the pathological doubt of patients with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD). Individuals with OCD exhibit a form of persistent doubting, indecisiveness, and over-cautiousness at pathological levels (Rasmussen and Eisen in Psychiatr Clin 15(4):743–758, 1992; Reed in Obsessional experience and compulsive behaviour: a cognitive-structural approach, Academic Press, Cambridge, 1985; Tolin et al. in Cogn Ther Res 27(6):657–669, 2003). I argue that the failure in OCD is of an affective nature, involving both excessive epistemic anxiety and hyperactive feelings of uncertainty. I further argue that our adaptive disposition to inquire about the right matters—that is, about propositions which are both epistemically risky and imply harmful possibilities—might depend on these affective mechanisms.


Reasonable doubt Adaptive doubt Obsessive–compulsive disorder Epistemic anxiety Feeling of uncertainty 



I am grateful to Fabrice Teroni, Jérôme Dokic, Anne Meylan, Charlie Kurth, Florian Cova, Arturs Logins, Steve Humbert-Droz, and Kris Goffin for their helpful feedback and suggestions, and to the audiences of the Thumos seminar in Geneva and of the Cognitive Irrationality seminar in Basel.


Funding was provided by Schweizerischer Nationalfonds zur Förderung der Wissenschaftlichen Forschung (Grant No. 100012_176364) and by the LabEx IEC research Grant ANR-10-LABX-0087 IEC and the IDEX PSL research Grant ANR-10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL.


  1. Abramowitz, J. S., McKay, D., & Taylor, S. (Eds.). (2008). Clinical handbook of obsessive-compulsive disorder and related problem. Baltimore: JHU Press.Google Scholar
  2. Arango-Muñoz, S. (2014). The nature of epistemic feelings. Philosophical Psychology,27(2), 193–211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Attiullah, N., Eisen, J. L., & Rasmussen, S. A. (2000). Clinical features of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Psychiatric Clinics,23(3), 469–491.Google Scholar
  4. Barlow, D. (2001). Anxiety and its disorders (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  5. Beck, A., Emery, G., & Greenberg, R. (1985). Anxiety disorders and phobias. A cognitive perspective. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  6. Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1992). A new theory of disuse and an old theory of stimulus fluctuation. In A. F. Healy, S. M. Kosslyn, & R. M. Shiffrin (Eds.), Essays in honor of William K. Estes. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  7. Brown, S. R. (2000). Tip-of-the-tongue phenomena: An introductory phenomenological analysis. Consciousness and Cognition,9(4), 516–537.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Brown, A. S. (2003). A review of the deja vu experience. Psychological Bulletin,129(3), 394.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cochrane, T., & Heaton, K. (2017). Intrusive uncertainty in obsessive compulsive disorder. Mind and Language,32(2), 182–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. De Sousa, R. (2008). Epistemic feelings. In G. Brun, U. Doğuoğlu & D. Kuenzle (Eds.), Epistemology and emotions (pp. 185–204).Google Scholar
  11. Dokic, J. (2012). Seeds of self-knowledge: noetic feelings and metacognition. Foundations of metacognition,6, 302–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dokic, J. (2014). Feelings of (un) certainty and margins for error. Philosophical Inquiries,2(1), 123–144.Google Scholar
  13. Dokic, J., & Egré, P. (2008). Margin for error and the transparency of knowledge. Synthese,166, 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Engel, P. (2008). Va Savoir!. Paris: Hermann.Google Scholar
  15. Gerken, M. (2017). On folk epistemology: How we think and talk about knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Grisham, J. R., Fullana, M. A., Mataix-Cols, D., Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., & Poulton, R. (2011). Risk factors prospectively associated with adult obsessive–compulsive symptom dimensions and obsessive–compulsive disorder. Psychological medicine, 41(12), 2495–2506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Henderson, J. G., Jr., & Pollard, C. A. (1988). Three types of obsessive compulsive disorder in a community sample. Journal of Clinical Psychology,44(5), 747–752.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hookway, C. (2008). Epistemic immediacy, doubt and anxiety: On a role for affective states in epistemic evaluation. In G. Brun, U. Doğuoğlu & D. Kuenzle (Eds.), Epistemology and emotions (pp. 51– 65).Google Scholar
  19. Huemer, M. (2007). Epistemic possibility. Synthese,156(1), 119–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Janet, P. (1919). Les obsessions et la psychasthenie (3rd ed.). Alcan: Paris.Google Scholar
  21. Koriat, A. (1995). Dissociating knowing and the feeling of knowing: Further evidence for the accessibility model. Journal of Experimental Psychology,124(3), 311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Koriat, A. (2000). The feeling of knowing: Some metatheoretical implications for consciousness and control. Consciousness and Cognition,9(2), 149–171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin,108(3), 480.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kurth, C. (2015). Moral anxiety and moral agency. In M. Timmons (Ed.), Oxford studies in normative ethics (Vol. 5). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Kurth, C. (2018). The anxious mind: An investigation into the varieties and virtues of anxiety. MIT Press.Google Scholar
  26. Maibom, H. (2014). Introduction: (Almost) everything you ever wanted to know about empathy. In H. Maibom (Ed.), Empathy and morality (pp. 1–40). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Maner, J. K., & Schmidt, N. B. (2006). The role of risk avoidance in anxiety. Behavior Therapy,37(2), 181–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Marks, I., & Nesse, R. (1994). Fear and fitness: An evolutionary analysis of anxiety disorders. Ethology and Sociobiology,15(5–6), 247–261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Mele, A. R. (2001). Autonomous agents: From self-control to autonomy. Oxford: Oxford University Press on Demand.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2005). Anxiety as an “epistemic” emotion: An uncertainty theory of anxiety. Anxiety Stress and Coping,18(4), 291–319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Morton, A. (2010). Epistemic emotions. In P. Goldie (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy of emotion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Moore, P. J. (2015). A hierarchical narrative framework for OCD. arXiv preprint arXiv:1503.00999.
  33. Nagel, J. (2010). Epistemic anxiety and adaptive invariantism. Philosophical Perspectives,24(1), 407–435.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Peirce, C. S. (1877). The fixation of belief. Popular Science Monthly,12(1), 1–15.Google Scholar
  35. Pinillos, N. Á. (2019). Skepticism and evolution. In B. Kim & M. McGrath (Eds.), Pragmatic Encroachment in Epistemology. RoutledgeGoogle Scholar
  36. Price, H. H. (1969/2002). Belief. Routledge.Google Scholar
  37. Rasmussen, S. A., & Eisen, J. L. (1992). The epidemiology and clinical features of obsessive compulsive disorder. Psychiatric Clinics,15(4), 743–758.Google Scholar
  38. Reed, G. F. (1985). Obsessional experience and compulsive behaviour: A cognitive-structural approach. Cambridge: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  39. Riesel, A., Endrass, T., Kaufmann, C., & Kathmann, N. (2011). Overactive error-related brain activity as a candidate endophenotype for obsessive-compulsive disorder: evidence from unaffected first-degree relatives. American Journal of Psychiatry,168(3), 317–324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Rotge, J. Y., Clair, A. H., Jaafari, N., Hantouche, E. G., Pelissolo, A., Goillandeau, M., et al. (2008). A challenging task for assessment of checking behaviors in obsessive–compulsive disorder. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica,117(6), 465–473.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Salkovskis, P. M. (1985). Obsessional-compulsive problems: A cognitive-behavioural analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy,23(5), 571–583CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Samuels, J., Bienvenu, O. J., Krasnow, J., Wang, Y., Grados, M. A., Cullen, B., et al. (2017). An investigation of doubt in obsessive–compulsive disorder. Comprehensive Psychiatry,75, 117–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Shapiro, D. (1965). Neurotic styles. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  44. Silvia, P. J. (2006). Exploring the psychology of interest. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Slovic, P., & Peters, E. (2006). Risk perception and affect. Current Directions in Psychological Science,15(6), 322–325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Stanovich, K. (2011). Rationality and the reflective mind. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Stern, E. R., Welsh, R. C., Gonzalez, R., Fitzgerald, K. D., Abelson, J. L., & Taylor, S. F. (2013). Subjective uncertainty and limbic hyperactivation in obsessive–compulsive disorder. Human Brain Mapping,34(8), 1956–1970.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Szechtman, H., & Woody, E. (2004). Obsessive–compulsive disorder as a disturbance of security motivation. Psychological Review,111(1), 111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Thompson, V. A. (2009). Dual process theories: A metacognitive perspective. In J. S. B. Evans & K. Frankish (Eds.), Two minds: Dual processes and beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Toffolo, M. B. J. (2015). Better super safe than slightly sorry?: Reciprocal relationships between checking behavior and cognitive symptoms in obsessive-compulsive disorder (Doctoral dissertation, Utrecht University).Google Scholar
  51. Tolin, D. F., Woods, C. M., & Abramowitz, J. S. (2003). Relationship between obsessive beliefs and obsessive–compulsive symptoms. Cognitive Therapy and Research,27(6), 657–669.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Trope, Y., & Liberman, A. (1996). Social hypothesis testing: Cognitive and motivational mechanisms. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  53. Whittlesea, B. W., & Williams, L. D. (2001). The discrepancy-attribution hypothesis: I. The heuristic basis of feelings and familiarity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition,27(1), 3.Google Scholar
  54. Williamson, T. (1994). Vagueness. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  55. Williamson, T. (2000). Knowledge and its limits. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Swiss Center for Affective SciencesUniversity of GenevaGenevaSwitzerland
  2. 2.Département d’Etudes CognitivesInstitut Jean Nicod, Ecole Normale SupérieureParisFrance

Personalised recommendations