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.
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There might be cases where forming a false belief turns out to be the least costly solution for the subject. These might be cases where an inaccurate hypothesis functions well and allows one to pursue inquiry or other needed actions, while articulating an accurate hypothesis would involve so many resources that it would hinder further inquiry. However, here we will be concerned with cases in which the pragmatic benefits of forming a more accurate judgement offset the pragmatic costs of increased mental effort.
In this paper, I will mainly be interested in anxiety when it manifests as an occurrent state, or a relatively short-lived emotional episode. However, anxiety can also manifest as a trait, which refers to an individual’s stable tendency to experience this emotion, with some consistency across situations and over time.
The Feeling of Rightness (FOR) is a metacognitive experience that accompanies type 1 processing and signals whether the current output suffices or whether additional type 2 processes are needed (Thompson 2009, 2010).
The central thesis of dual process theory is that there are at least two types of processes underlying human judgment, reasoning and decision making. However, most dual process theorists argue that there are many different type 1 processes (Stanovich 2011). These are said to be heuristic, associative, pre-reflective, effortless, automatic, independent of general intelligence and fast. Type 1 processes have also been said to be distinctive in being subconscious, inaccessible, subpersonal, and involuntary (see Evans 2008, 2010). Likewise, some dual process theorists argue that there are a number of distinct type 2 processes. These are said to be analytic, rule-based, deliberative, effortful, non-automatic, dependent on general intelligence and slow.
System 2 processes can be engaged in various manners: it can for instance simply consist in an explicit acceptance of the answer produced by implicit processes, it can also intervene to rationalize or justify the heuristic judgment (explain why it is correct), or it can intervene to reformulate the representation of the heuristic judgment in order to produce a different solution.
I lay no claim in the paper as to what causes such signals to become hyperactive. A view such as the one put forward by Levy (2018) provides such an explanation, by appealing to disordered attention. The model presented here is not meant to provide an exhaustive explanation of the disorder, as I am restricted to describing the affective components of doubt, but it is compatible with and complementing of models focused on cognitive processes, such as Levy’s and Moore’s.
In his model, Pinillos (2019) instead suggests that skeptical judgements are produced by a specific metacognitive mechanism which tests beliefs for sensitivity. Pinillos takes the condition of sensitivity as central in explaining humans’ inclination towards skeptical judgements of the “evil demon” type. These are indeed phenomena in which a subject considers possibilities of error and attempts to rule them out. If the sensitivity condition seems better suited to skeptical judgements, it does not suit everyday occurrences of doubt, which are the object of my present study.
Regarding the type of stimuli which are likely to trigger the feeling of uncertainty, prominent theories point towards a mismatch between predictions about inputs generated at lower levels of cognition, and stimuli that the organism encounters in the environment. Feelings of uncertainty are conscious experiences, which take place at the personal level, but are grounded on subpersonal monitoring mechanisms that are sensitive to certain kinds of mismatches.
A disorder involving solely a hyperactivation of the metacognitive mechanisms responsible for feelings of uncertainty, or solely a hyperactive epistemic anxiety, might not be sufficient to account for the behaviors we observe in OCD patients. While the former will supposedly result in a tendency to feel insecure about one’s beliefs, the latter would supposedly result in a tendency to be generally over-concerned about whether p. However, patients with OCD seem both over-cautious with regard to the issues they obsess about, and over-concerned: they appraise and treat the matter as high-stakes. This might be the reason why patients are unable to silence the creeping feelings of uncertainty. Feelings of uncertainty are the result of a metacognitive monitoring of underlying cognitive processing. In general, such results can then be endorsed at higher levels, or dismissed. Dismissal of the information provided by feelings of uncertainty is one way in which the process of doubt can get interrupted. However, it is much harder to dismiss such feelings when they emerge in a context that is appraised as high-stakes. Hence, the apparent failure to dismiss feelings of uncertainty in these patients points towards a disorder involving both steps.
Kurth (2018, p. 115) attributes a metacognitive dimension to anxiety itself, in the sense that anxiety signals that some of our goals and desires stand in conflict with some of our current beliefs (i.e. the desire to stay safe conflicts with the belief that there is a dangerous man approaching). In the same manner, epistemic anxiety signals a conflict between our current goal to get things right epistemically, and the possibility (made salient by the feeling of uncertainty) that one’s epistemic attitude be inaccurate.
One might be worried about the fact that this account requires that two affective states be felt for one to experience real doubt. However, it is not uncommon to experience several affective episodes simultaneously in response to a situation. Some have even argued that “emotions are seldom felt in isolation, particularly in isolation from related emotions” (Maibom 2014, p. 7). Arguably, the ability to experience several affective episodes at once allows us to apprehend multiple relevant evaluative features of a situation concurrently, as opposed to being limited to capturing only one evaluative aspect at a time.
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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.
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Vazard, J. (Un)reasonable doubt as affective experience: obsessive–compulsive disorder, epistemic anxiety and the feeling of uncertainty. Synthese (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02497-y
- Reasonable doubt
- Adaptive doubt
- Obsessive–compulsive disorder
- Epistemic anxiety
- Feeling of uncertainty