Why it is Time to Retire Bloom’s Taxonomy


Picture: Exam among Chinese Students (Source: Tomo News)

“You cannot teach today the same way you did yesterday to prepare students for tomorrow. ” John Dewey

1. Historical Credit and Positioning

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning has reigned as one of the most influential pedagogical concepts for the design of school curricula until today. Formulated by Benjamin Bloom and colleagues in the mid-50s (Bloom et al., 1956), the taxonomy attempted to break away from behaviorist theories as well as learning via remembering (rote learning) by promoting higher-order thinking skills, such as analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating concepts. Taking a more holistic approach, the taxonomy covers the cognitive- (knowledge-based), affective- (emotive-based) and psychomotor (action-based) domain which may explain its intuitive appeal to teachers.

In 2001, Anderson & Krathwohl (2001) published a revised edition of Bloom’s Taxonomy, suggesting that in the cognitive domain, creation appears as a higher-order process as compared to evaluation (ISU, 2017).

2. Limitation of Bloom’s Taxonomy

There are a number of reasons why Bloom’s Taxonomy should be retired as an educational concept.

2.1 Lack of Scientific Validity

Currently, Bloom’s Taxonomy is more than 60 years old and it had been developed before extensive empirical research into cognition, metacognition and motivation were conducted. As such, the taxonomy’s main categories (Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation) are not supported by any empirical research on learning, be it as a category or as a category within a hierarchy ranging from lower to higher-order thinking skills.


The only terms validated by research are factual-conceptual knowledge (described in modern pedagogy as ‘prior knowledge’) and procedural- and metacognitive knowledge. For example, in psychology metacognition is further differentiated into metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive regulation and metacognitive experiences (Efklides, 2006; Schraw & Moshman, 1995; Schraw et al., 2006) and it can appear in the form of individual metacognition (reflective thinking ‘due to me’), or social metacognition, the reflective thinking ‘due to others’ (Briñol & DeMarree, 2012; Kim et al., 2013).

Besides, do higher and lower-order thinking skills as described by Bloom really exist?

When looking at the structure of sensemaking, we may find that lower- and higher-order thinking skills do not exist per se. Some examples: The hierarchy of Bloom’s cognitive domains are broken in the case of (a) a problem-solving scenario where the comprehension of basic facts may outweigh an evaluation that is based on biased perceptions, or (b), where a concept is tested for the robustness of its causal and conditional relations in order to get approved – in this case, analysis and evaluation are practically identical. Creation might not constitute a higher order domain when underlying data analysis and conclusions are faulty. One could argue that conceptualizing solution development and research are of a higher order than simply putting things together, demonstrating that broad categories such as ‘creating’ are highly ambiguous.

We cannot analyze things blindly without a sense of intuitive comprehension and we cannot comprehend things without some sort of prior evaluation, and so on and so forth. Inductive -empirical and deductive-theoretical inferences reciprocally relate. This is why assuming a hierarchy of domains such as in Bloom’s Taxonomy is highly doubtful.

2.2 Lack of an Epistemological Base

Knowledge creation and relating thinking skills do not exist as a priori phenomena, but they are evoked and engaged by people. Knowledge is a foremost social construct while learning is facilitated by social processes (Bandura 2001, 2006). In this light, Bloom’s Taxonomy does not take into consideration the relation of persons to the creation of knowledge. This includes crucial aspects of learning such as the motivation to acquire knowledge, reiterative and diverse cycles of research, open inquiry, the validation of related arguments or ongoing refinement of concepts. Bloom’s Taxonomy tells us nothing about the role that learners play in knowledge acquisition, about a learner’s intellectual values, the psychological effects of learning experiences, about discrete knowledge creation paths within different subjects, the relating of facts to ideas or the communicative processes involved in research and development. Bloom’s Taxonomy does not explain how people create, manage and modify knowledge.

Epistemological questions ask things like ‘How do we know that we know?’ or ‘How do we make sure that our knowledge is valid, reliable and relevant?’ It becomes clear that the answers to such complex, but critical questions cannot be answered by attributing them to general categories (e.g., ‘to analyze’, ‘to synthesize’), but via open and context-specific inquiry among multiple learners. Assessment cannot be based on tick-boxing which cognitive domains have been covered or not but by the quality of underlying reasoning.

2.3. Practical Disadvantages

Other potential disadvantages of applying the taxonomy in curricula are (a) the lowering of expectations for higher-level deliberation and reasoning among students by ascribing complex, interrelated processes to simple cognitive domains (b) creating a false notion of ‘higher order’ versus ‘lower order’ outcomes. The taxonomy misleads educators to apply these perceived categories in separation, hampering a natural flow of logical reasoning in group discussions and (c) the wrongful identification of cognitive processes. Bloom has listed specific ‘action verbs’ that he claims are identifiers for cognitive domains, but it is easy to demonstrate that such simple correlations using ‘action verbs’ are misleading at best.

In the domain ‘Evaluation’, a student may e.g., ‘compare’ facts without involving analysis, ‘describe’ a phenomenon without explaining its underlying causality and context, or ‘justify’ an argument without giving valid reasons to why is should be believed. It is the reflected coherence of underlying cognitive processes that justifies arguments, not the mere presence of verbs.

3. Conclusion

Educators are looking for evidence-based strategies to enhance their students’ learning. Since Bloom’s Taxonomy is neither based on scientific findings nor offers an epistemological base that explains how knowledge is specifically created and modified within a socio-cultural context, it provides little grounds to why it should be employed in educational settings.

The advantages of a constructivist approach, by contrast, are obvious: what matters is not the categorical identification of cognitive processes, but to determine how cognitive constructs have been assembled by the learner, which reasons and motivations went into the formulation of mental content and how knowledge-creation ties into larger meaningful frameworks such as cultural identity, human relationships, consensus finding, policy making, solutions development or the advancement of local and global communities.

In closing, Bloom’s Taxonomy, despite its historical merits, should be retired as an educational philosophy on the following grounds:

  • The taxonomy is not empirically validated
  • The taxonomy focusses on abstract cognitive domains rather than on learners. The taxonomy is not learner-centered and does not answer questions regarding a learner’s autonomy, competence and social relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2012), all aspects essential to knowledge creation.
  • Real-life contexts and their relevance for knowledge creation are not part of Bloom’s Taxonomy
  • The taxonomy does not take into consideration the meaning that knowledge creates for a learner (or a community of cooperating learners)
  • The role of prior knowledge is not operationalized from an epistemological perspective
  • Motivation, the key component to learning, is not part of the concept
  • Individual differences in learning styles and attitudes remain unaccounted for
  • The taxonomy provides no sensible, specific criteria for assessment, such as evaluating students in their role as team members, researchers, and problem-solvers, nor does it capture the development of self-directed learning
  • Thinking processes are not based on strict sequences or hierarchies. Depending on the kind of problem at hand and its complexity, learners structure cognitive and metacognitive processes accordingly
  • The obsession with cognitive skills and processes is often practiced at the expense of personal development, social skills, communication skills and the development of cooperative behavior

In all fairness, we have to consider that Bloom lived in a time and culture that celebrated uncompromised individualism. Bloom still shared the assumption of solipsistic learners whose learning can be objectively measured by a clear-cut hierarchical taxonomy. Empirically validated theories of social learning, intrinsic motivation, and cognitive construction had not yet appeared on the horizon when he worked on his taxonomy.



Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.

Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.

Bandura, A. (2001). Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective. Annual Review Of Psychology, 52(1), 1

Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a Psychology of Human Agency. Perspectives on Psychological Science, (2). 164.

Briñol, P., & DeMarree, K. G. (2012). Social metacognition. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Motivation, personality, and development within embedded social contexts: An overview of self-determination theory. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), Oxford handbook of human motivation (pp. 85-107). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195399820.001.0001

Efklides, A. (2006). Metacognition and affect: What can metacognitive experiences tell us about the learning process? Educational Research Review, 13-14. doi:10.1016/j.edurev.2005.11.001

Iowa State University (2017). Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy. Retrieved from: http://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching/effective-teaching-practices/revised-blooms-taxonomy

Kim, Y. R., Park, M. S., Moore, T. J., & Varma, S. (2013). Multiple levels of metacognition and their elicitation through complex problem-solving tasks. The Journal Of Mathematical Behavior, 32(3), 377-396. doi:10.1016/j.jmathb.2013.04.002

Schraw, G., & Moshman, D. (1995). Metacognitive Theories. Educational Psychology Review, (4). 351.

Schraw, G., Crippen, K. J., & Hartley, K. (2006). Promoting Self-Regulation in Science Education: Metacognition as Part of a Broader Perspective on Learning. Research In Science Education, 36(1-2), 111-139.

‘I Love Democracy – As Long as You Agree With Me’: Notes on the Social Psychology of Authoritarianism

Nationalist autocrats (Trump, Erdogan, Putin): Different cultural backgrounds, shared cognitive template

The Democratic Model: Deliberating Discussions and Open Inquiry

Before going into workings of authoritarianism, it is useful to remind ourselves how functional, non-authoritarian systems look like in order to establish a baseline for evaluation. As I noticed during my recent holidays in Germany, politics appeared surprisingly sober and plain, absent of drama and high-stake ideological debates. For example, the Ministry of Environment proposed a tax increase for meat and milk from a subsidized 7% to a regular 19%, arguing the unfavorable carbon footprint of meat production. Being a traditionally meat-eating country, the proposal was immediately dismissed by the food lobby and most political parties. However, in the media, a vivid discussion emerged. Questions were asked such as ‘Should only the wealthy be able to eat meat?’ ‘Would it make more sense to tax meat, but to keep milk at the subsidized rate?’ ‘How about fruit: Should we also label fruit according to its delivery by plane (= higher carbon footprint) versus by ship (= lower carbon footprint)’?

Although the progressive idea of the Ministry may not have succeeded in the first round, the wider public started discussing the pros and cons, without a single politician or party hijacking the debate. This distributed discourse model stimulated in-depth analysis and new ideas that one day may serve as the basis for better-informed policies and laws. The point of public deliberation, after all, is to make well-informed decisions that are fair to all. The information processing in this model is conducted horizontally on a many-to-many basis.

Even on emotionally highly charged topics, such as the recent terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, the public debate took a widely pragmatic stand, ranging from critical analysis to prediction: How could a terrorist suspect, already in custody, be released by authorities? Where did authorities and the law fail? How can legal loopholes be fixed? How should the state deal with dangerous suspects in order to prevent future attacks?

Public discussion did not bother about ideological questions (such as ‘Does Islam endanger our Western civilization?’), but looked at pragmatic solutions addressing the problem at hand. Across political parties, a metacognitive principle was upheld to never blindly stigmatize and label groups of people and to differentiate within groups, such as e.g., fundamentalist Salafists versus moderate, integrated Muslims. Public consensus was that ontological and ideological judgments, due to their generalizing nature, tend to foreclose the discussion of specifics required for complex problem-solving.

Pluralistic Societies: Moving Beyond Group Conformity

In the cited examples, group affiliation or group membership did not determine the power of argument in the media. It is the suspension of group conformity that enables the unbiased public examination of arguments. Traditionally, social psychology dealt with issues such as social identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), social conformity (Asch 1953, 1956; Janis 1972, 1982; Milgram, 1963, 1974) and social comparison (Festinger, 1954). It is intuitive to conclude how group identities solidify attitudes and behavior. However, in complex, pluralistic societies, group memberships and identities overlap (e.g., for a person who is a single parent with a migration- and higher education background, representing at least three implied group memberships) and it is the specific needs and interest across those overlaps that determine social cognition, personal attitudes, and behavior.

In pluralistic societies, social norms of cooperation develop and group perspectives integrate under the aspect of superordinate goals. Subsequently, the psychology of pluralistic societies is multi-layered and distributed horizontally in terms of social group identities: in interdependent group-constellations costs and payoffs between groups balance, encouraging the emergence of shared values.

By contrast, ideological narratives in combination with strong emotions generalize and simplify a group’s worldview, avoiding the processing of specific cognitive content. A set of supportive narratives allows authoritarian leaders to turn people against their own interests, e.g., to manipulate working class people into believing that tuition-free education would be unaffordable for the government or that trickle-down economics benefits those at the bottom of the social food chain.

Authoritarianism simplifies people’s real-world problems and silences the diversity and complexity of modern life. It provides simplistic promises (‘Let’s make America great again‘) to complex challenges such as globalization, deindustrialization, and digitization, but it is incapable of developing adequate solutions to multi-faceted challenges. To this extent, authoritarianism opens Pandora’s Box – the very real prospect of collective failure and poor decision making by dismissing communicative, networked competence and independent critique.

The Foreclosure of Open Debate by Authoritarianism

There are a plethora of strategies available to foreclose, circumvent and disqualify open debate. The most obvious, as pointed out by Robert Reich, is the berating of public media as ‘dishonest’, ‘lying’, ‘deceitful’ or ‘scum’ (as labeled by American President-Elect Donald Trump) or as “Lügenpresse” (“Press of Lies”, as labeled by right-wing activist and neo-Nazis in Germany). The term “Lügenpresse” has been used continuously across diverse historical contexts by authoritarian regimes e.g., during the Third Reich to disqualify newspapers critical of the Nazi party or by the SED, the ‘Socialist Unity Party’ of former East Germany to label the Western press. Authoritarian leaders do not regard media as a prerequisite to democratic deliberation, but as a conspiracy working against them. Subsequently, authoritarianism thrives on paranoia which is why scapegoating, the dissemination of fears of outgroups, serves as an effective social control instrument to avoid the exchange of critical arguments.

As in all authoritarian systems, information is forwarded without further moderation and analysis top-down, from a leader to a complying group. In the 20th century, the choice of authoritarian transmission was by radio and state-owned newspapers. Today, technologies such as essentially fulfilling the same function of an efficient one-to-many transmission. Essential for the circumvention of collective cognitive processing is the convergence towards a single leader who manipulates the cognitive processing and behavior of followers. The problem for critics of authoritarian regimes is that they may fall into the trap of hanging onto a leader’s lips, similar to true believers. Instead, critics should refrain from commenting on every nonsensical statement, rather than questioning the legitimacy of underlying assumptions, putting a leader’s claims in the context of viable reasons, critically commenting on a leader’s socio-political and verbal behavior while exposing fabricated facts and holding writers of fake news accountable.

Other repressive strategies to disqualify the press include (1) the setting up of blacklists to punish authors that are regarded as too critical, (2) turning the public’s opinion against media in general and (3) threatening journalists with lawsuits by tightening libel laws. Simultaneously, media supportive of a regime are rewarded. In authoritarian regimes, media are no more conceptualized as bipartisan or unbiased information platforms, not as institutions that can be independently audited for the quality of their research, but as self-serving gratification outlets of a ruling oligarchy.

Authoritarianism is the reversal of democracy: Politicians stop perceiving themselves as public servants and they expect the public to serve them instead. Personal psychology such as politician’s need for self-affirmation dominate the debate, rather than the social psychology of shared deliberation.

1984-frontDoublespeak and Doublethink

On a social level, followers of autocratic leaders need to be provided an alternative version of reality to support their particular worldview. This process is accommodated in two steps: (a) Facts are re-interpreted to suit the agenda of the ruling class. In this light, truth does not exist in the form of objective, verifiable facts but as a convenient vessel to convey one’s convictions. (b) Once ‘alternative facts’ (‘doublespeak’) are widely accepted by a target group, attitudes, beliefs and cognitive styles around ideological interpretations solidify. Fabricated narratives lead to the ideological foreclosure of procedural cognition.

In his famous novel ‘1984’, George Orwell coined the term ‘doublethink’ for this type of sensemaking based on ideological indoctrination. A person affected by ‘doublethink’ is completely unaware of conflict or contradiction to obvious facts, oblivious to any cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1957, 1964). This is how ‘doublethinkers’ make for perfect supporters of autocrats – they will never question the fabricated facts upon which their beliefs are built. Followers rely on a seemingly coherent ideological worldview. The main characteristic of ‘doublethink’ is the absence and avoidance of cognitive dissonance, of divergent arguments and critical thinking.

In terms corresponding political behavior, autocrats dismantle democratic structures in two logical steps. Firstly, they surround themselves with a tight circle of people that share their worldview since they are intolerant to cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Secondly, they will set up mechanisms that circumvent media, the judiciary, and scrutiny by political parties to replace a democratic-divergent system with an ideological-convergent one.

Image above: Book-cover Design for George Orwell’s ‘1984’

The Social Psychology of Authoritarianism: Implicit Ideology as a Strategy to Quietly Dissolve Modern Democracies

The psychology of authoritarianism is based on regressing to the level of salient group identities.The hallmarks of authoritarianism were, as pointed out by Richard Reich and Elizabeth Warren, (a) the dissolve of open democratic inquiry, (b) the convergence towards appointed leaders (versus a pluralistic and diverse public), (c) the polarization of the public into true believers and traitors (or ‘the people’ versus ‘elites’), rather than acknowledging the specific interests of divergent groups and (d) establishing an oligarchy, an exclusive group of powerful people who self-sanction their rule by political and economic means.

The social psychology behind authoritarianism does not necessarily require an explicitly defined ideology, such as fascism, communism or religious beliefs. It suffices to imply a specific worldview indirectly, in particular in populations with a large liberal minority that would immediately reject explicit ideology. The minimal condition is for followers to believe that their charismatic leader knows best, that the leader is infallible even in the face of counterfactual evidence. To this extent, post-factual fabulation endorses a self-affirming fatalism in the case of negative outcomes, since beliefs and sentiment circumvent causal and correlational reasoning, The attitude held by autocratic leaders is ‘I never lose, I always win. It was the others that made me lose.’ Public platforms are regarded as an opportunity for self-validation, not for the sake of cooperative problem-solving, open deliberation or independent auditing.

Image: Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump (top) officially established ‘alternative facts’ (‘doublespeak’) in January 2017 in a blunt rejection of empirical facts when she denied the low attendance during President Trump’s inauguration. Her interpretation was reinforced by Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary (Source: NBC/ CNN)

In authoritarian regimes, mechanisms of group compliance take over, such as described by Milgram (surrender to imperative authority, such as powerful oligarchs), Asch (conforming towards ingroup consensus), Tajfel (the minimum group condition for social identity is identification with a leader’s perceived infallibility) and Janis (the emergence of groupthink, a group incapable of examining external and divergent perspectives).

Social motivation in authoritarian systems is supported by falling back on traditional beliefs, exclusive and unempathetic social norms as well as a set of counterfactual ideological narratives such as, e.g. ‘Man-made climate change is a hoax’, ‘Wealth trickles down from the rich to the poor, this is why we need to support the wealthy’, ‘Free education for all is a communist idea’, ‘Social welfare is only for the weak and lazy’, ‘The less government, the better’, ‘Deregulation is bad for business’, ‘Our nation first’ etc.

Authoritarianism defines itself also by the absence of metacognitive assessment (Metcalfe & Shimamura, 1994; Schraw, 1998) the question of why we think how we think. For example, Why would someone think that man-made climate change is a hoax? How do people derive conclusions about wealth and entitlement? Which are the justifications for a libertarian, a socialist, a consequentialist or deontological approach to social fairness?

Authoritarian mental processing excludes such metacognitive reasoning since it would potentially expose the lack of democratic legitimization. Instead, it appears safer to fall back on a set of constantly repeated, salient narratives. If repeated often enough ad nauseam, they will appear to be true – truth by assertion (Freely & Steinberg, 2009).

The described mechanisms of social conformity in combination with metacognitive avoidance dissolve the diverse, democratic processing of information. The monopolization of information processing in the hands of a few prevents open, independent inquiry and discussion. There cannot exist open and sensible discussion in a world where a leader already knows best. This is perhaps why current developments are a grave reason for concern. The appointment of autocratic leaders is not about putting up with a disagreeable political party or its political agenda, at stake is the foreclosing of participatory debate by the converging ideologies of autocratic leaders, fueled by their idiosyncratic, narcissist need for self-glorification.

Nationalist noise is designed to hide the deficits of personality-centered politics: the inability to listen to and understand the other, to include others, the inability for self-correction via independent critique and the inability to cooperative problem-solving.

The emperor has still no clothes.



Asch, S. E. (1952). Group forces in the modification and distortion of judgments.

Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological monographs: General and applied, 70(9), 1-70.

Festinger L (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human relations. 7 (2): 117–140.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Festinger, L. (Ed.). (1964). Conflict, decision, and dissonance (Vol. 3). Stanford University Press.

Freeley, A. J., & Steinberg, D. L. (2009), Argumentation and Debate; Critical Thinking for Reasoned Decision-Making, Wadsworth Cengage Learning, p. 196

Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of Groupthink: a Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Janis, I. L.& (1982). Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes.  Second Edition.  New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Metcalfe, J., & Shimamura, A. P. (1994). Metacognition: knowing about knowing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. Harpercollins.

Schraw, G. (1998). Promoting general metacognitive awareness. Instructional Science. 26: 113–125.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. The social psychology of intergroup relations, 33, 47.

Inside the Education Revolution: An Exclusive Interview with University of the People (UoPeople), the World’s First Non-profit, Tuition-free, Accredited Online University


Picture: Shai Reshef, President of The University of the People (Image courtesy of UoPeople).

Is low-cost, high-quality education no more than a distant dream? Does quality education have to stay out of reach for the majority of globalized learners? A courageous and innovative online university doesn’t think so.

The University of the People (UoPeople) is the brainchild of Shai Reshef, an eLearning entrepreneur who founded UoPeople in 2009. The online university is based in Pasadena, California and is fully accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) in Washington DC. University of the People is the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, accredited online university. Associate’s degree programs as well as Bachelor and Master’s programs at UoP eople currently cover the fields of Business Administration, Computer Science and Health Science. A brief summary of the university’s milestones can be found here.

In order for students to enroll, applicants must be over 18 years of age, have a high school diploma, be proficient in English and have appropriate academic qualifications, along with access to an Internet connection.

Academically, UoPeople is collaborating with prestigious partners such as the Yale Law School Information Society Project (Yale ISP), New York University and University of California Berkeley (UC Berkeley) who started to accept qualified graduates from UoPeople into their undergraduate programs.

Online classrooms at UoPeople are limited to 20-30 students to allow for individualized tutoring which distinguishes UoPeople from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). Although there are no tuition fees, UoPeople is not entirely free. A basic fee of 100 US$ per exam is required, which amounts to approximately US$ 4000 for a four-years Bachelor degree. For many students from developing countries and students from disadvantaged socio-economic background UoPeople is, more than often, the alternative to no alternative, as Shai Reshef recently put it, while retention rates are at 95% (as compared to 5% for MOOCs). For the academic year of 2017, more than 6000 students from 180 countries have enrolled. For its online delivery, UoPeople is using  the Open Source eLearning platform Moodle and the social network Microsoft Yammer.

In order to obtain a clearer picture of this remarkable institution, I conducted an email interview with Sarah Vanunu, Director of Public Relations at UoPeople who was kind to share insights into the operations, challenges and future ambitions of the university.

Which are currently the biggest operational challenges for UoPeople and how do you address them?

One definite challenge is getting the word out to our target audience of students. Although the university has had publicity in prominent media outlets such as the New York Times and BBC and through TED Talks, many potential students are not consumers of this kind of media. People who stand to benefit from tuition-free education need to know about UoPeople, and yet the people who may need UoPeople the most may have a hard time finding out about it. As an independent nonprofit institution that intends to remain tuition-free, UoPeople must operate on a very lean budget. Thus, without a wealth of funds for marketing, the university is largely dependent on word-of-mouth and media coverage. Though its mission is to ensure that no one is left behind for financial reasons, it needs help both making sure that students can find the institution in the first place and being able to assist them with financial aid, if necessary, once they do. An ongoing challenge, then, is making sure UoPeople is visible and accessible, when people who need it are researching their options and, when they find it, ensuring that there are scholarships to support them if they attend.

Since you seem to depend largely on volunteers, how do you train your online tutors?

So another challenge, as just noted, is managing and using efficiently an army of volunteers. The university’s volunteers come from all ranks of universities and offer their services and expertise to help our students, functioning as instructors and carrying out the day-to-day teaching activity. Those who teach do receive a token honorarium, which is a way for the institution to show respect for their work and to assure their commitment. Many of these volunteers interact with and help students directly, and we are still learning how to most efficiently make use of the incredible resources they provide. While the university relies heavily on volunteers, and numerous volunteers are involved in every aspect of its activities, at the same time it is important to note that the university is not wholly dependent on them. In the short time the university has been in existence, a main lesson learned has been that volunteers are useful, and very helpful in the day-to-day activities of the university, and yet a system has to be in place so that for the various categories of volunteers there are paid backups to ensure its structural stability and continuity.

Almost all of our instructors come to us with previous online experience in the very field that they teach for us.  Saying that, when they are selected, we have a training program to prepare them for our unique online teaching pedagogy and platform. We also ensure commitments from our instructors so that they cannot back out in the middle of a course. The expected work for instructors is 10-15 hours/week per course.

Our online course instructors are selected to teach the courses in sections kept purposely small to create intimate learning communities and to support the peer learning and assessment approach that is an important component of the institution’s instructional model.  Course Instructors are selected for their knowledge of the specific content area.  Course Instructors also contribute to ongoing enhancement of courses by expanding content and flagging errors for correction.

With New York University, Yale Law School ISP and UC Berkeley, the UoPeople has an impressive list of academic partners. How does the input of partners translate into curricula and delivery models?

The partnership with each university is separate: With Yale Law School ISP it is a research partnership; NYU allows high performing students who have completed at least one year of studies at UoPeople, and who meet the standards of admission, to be eligible to apply for admission to NYU, with a generous scholarship; UC Berkeley accepts highly qualified, top-performing UoPeople Associate’s degree graduates for transfer admission to complete a Bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley.

If you take UC Berkeley for example, the partnership agreement followed a very thorough research of assessment of the quality of UoPeople’s programs and only after Berkeley was convinced that our academic quality is high enough to partner with it. UoPeople’s mission is closely aligned with the mission of Berkeley, to open the gates to a quality higher education to every deserving student. We are thrilled to have these academic collaborations as this kind of recognition is the ultimate endorsement of the value of UoPeople degrees and opens new doors of opportunity for our students.

In addition, all the people that are involved with the academic leadership of University of the People, be it setting up the curriculum, writing the courses and teaching, are coming from other universities, many of them such as those described above. They bring the knowledge of these institutions to UoPeople.

Our Presidents Council, for example, chaired by New York University President Emeritus John Sexton, includes Oxford Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Sir Colin Lucas, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, and Nobel Laureate and President Emeritus of The Rockefeller University, Dr. Torsten N. Wiesel, among others.

How does UoPeople maintain high academic standards?

UoPeople is recognized by the DEAC as an accredited online University, and adheres to all DEAC Standards and Code of Ethics. Accreditation status confirms that an institution has voluntarily undergone a comprehensive self-study and peer examination that demonstrates the institution meets standards of accreditation. To receive accreditation, the institution must clearly demonstrate that it has established educational goals; offers formal, organized learning experiences and services that enable students to meet these stated goals; and that students and graduates have benefited from the learning experiences provided. Furthermore, accreditation assures that an institution operates on a sound financial basis, has approved programs of study, qualified instructors, ethical recruitment and admission policies, engages in continual improvement through self-evaluation and planning, and promotes its programs truthfully.

Our Deans are coming from some of the best universities (NYU and Princeton), and our Advisory Boards as well. These are the people who decide on our curriculum and supervise the overall quality of our university.


Picture: Syrian refugees in Turkey studying with UoPeople

Would UoPeople be interested to cooperate globally with government agencies in education? If yes, how and on which levels?

UoPeople is creating a model for other universities, countries and governments to emulate. Right now, governments of developing countries are spending the few millions they have to build brick-and-mortar universities – their own Harvard – however, after a few years, they still cannot meet the demand and they haven’t built Harvard because you cannot build Harvard in a few years. We are showing the way for how online learning can really revolutionize university education, particularly the economics of higher education. Governments can educate every qualified student online, tuition-free. What a great leap this would be for not only the individuals, but for their families, their communities, their countries, and for the world at large.  UoPeople would love to collaborate with any government that is interested in adopting this model of higher education to close the gap between availability and access… and we are willing to show them how.

Measuring Social Motivation: How can we obtain more holistic cultural profiles?

Florian-Bayer-African-GovernanceIllustration by Florian Bayer ‘African Governance Architecture’ (World Illustration Awards, 2016)

Endowed with language and reason, we strive to persevere

We are social creatures long before we are individuals (Vygotsky & Cole, 1978). We depend on our families, our personal relationships, peers, communities, our culture and society to survive and evolve. The more complex the society we create, the more elaborate the social scaffold, the more options open up for its members to thrive in.

Plato still assumed the metaphysical existence of a ‘telos’, an intrinsic deterministic force that would drive people to build states in order to realise the good life. Aristotle did not go as far and took the more pragmatic view that, despite all suffering in life, people still hope for joy and happiness. The prerequisite to achieving happiness in life was for Aristotle represented by the idea that people build states by virtue of being capable of language and reason (zoon logon echon). On the downside, the failure to establish a social contract, as Hobbes described in his ‘Leviathan’, was synonymous with the regress into tribal communities, concluding in a war of all against all (‘bellum omnium contra omnes’) in what he called a state of nature. The most critical incentives for social motivation appear, in a philosophical light, in the form of goal-directed incentives for cooperation versus the threat of violent social conflict and the even grimmer prospect of perishing from the face of the earth.

What are human needs and how can we conceptualise them?

Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of needs’ (Maslow, 1954), builds on the intuition that social-physiological needs of survival serve as prerequisite fulfilling higher-order needs (mainly love, self-esteem, and self-actualization). Other psychologists, on many accounts, criticised Maslow’s hierarchy. One of the critical arguments states that individual self-realization does not necessarily identify the pinnacle of human need fulfilment. Self-realization may not play a significant role in collectivist cultures which are governed by collective well-being and the fulfilment of group norms (Hofstede, 1984). The utilitarian idea of the greatest good for the greatest number would be another example of an alternate goal.  Not only do cultures create unique hierarchies, but people express different types of needs, for example depending on their age. Children need love the most, adolescents typically look to build self-esteem and older people may look for safety and financial security (Erikson, 1950, 1968; Goebel et al., 1981). A generalised assumption of universal needs fitting people of all ages, personalities and cultures may empirically hard, if not impossible, to prove. Still, Maslow’s model provides the useful intuition that social constructs build on the satisfaction of interdependent clusters of needs.

The underlying hypothesis: The complexity of modern societies requires new types of social regulation

The underlying psychological hypothesis regarding modern societies states that socialised individuals emerge via a plethora of developmental pathways. In contrast to traditional and tribal communities, members of modern societies need to internalise and develop new cognitive-behavioral skills in order to manage higher social complexity. This is how individuality, personal responsibility, higher order thinking and metacognitive abilities emerge. Tangney and Dearing (2002) noted, in extension to moral awareness of context and Self, “Whereas early moral goals centered on reducing potentially lethal aggression, clarifying social rank, and enhancing conformity to social norms, modern morality centers on the ability to acknowledge one’s wrongdoing, accept responsibility and take reparative action.” (Tangney & Dearing, p.127) 

moneyPhotographs above: Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of needs’ still serves as a valid intuition when looking at the relation between income and need satisfaction, such as covering basic needs of survival versus the creation of new luxury needs. Beyond well-being, monetary resources relate to global Self-image, life opportunities as well as social power and influence. 

The problem of need-based theories (1): How can needs serve as an independent measure of social regulation when their cultural interpretation varies?

Human needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence are suggested by Self-determination Theory as universal factors regulating human life (Deci & Ryan, 2012). But do universal needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence exist beyond an intuitive approval of these human properties? The following arguments question the usefulness of needs as a measure of social motivation in cross-cultural psychology.

The diversity argument. Cultural diversification, one could argue, scaffolds relatedness, competence and autonomy. Diversification is based on variations how people use their brains differently based on intrapsychic, environmental and behavioural determinants. Human development of cognitive, affective and behavioural faculties is malleable, allowing societies and cultures to branch into multiple realisations. Human needs appear, in this light, more like inclinations that are scaffold by the social lifeworld. This may explain why needs are interpreted differently by people, be it on individual-, group- or cultural level. To take relatedness as an example, cultures tend to be either more collectivist or individualist. To take competence as an example, learning cultures place a huge importance on gaining competencies while many non-learning cultures see little gain in acquiring knowledge beyond their native context. Regarding autonomy, the value of autonomy is typically more cherished within an individualist, rather than in a collectivist culture. Since cultures are divers in organizing their social regulation and take different approaches to satisfying their needs, how can we tell the dependent  from the independent variable (here: culture/ need preferences)?

The competition of needs argument. The developmental potential of human agency starts from earliest development. For example, babies in Africa, Asia or Europe cry differently as they pick up the tonality of their cultural surroundings (Wermke et al., 2016). The culture-dependent internalization of socio-cultural norms has been thoroughly researched, such as in in Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977; Grusec 1992), Social Identity Theory (Haslam, 2001; Tajfel & Turner, 1986) and cross-cultural psychology (Hofstede, 2001; Nisbett & Miyamoto, 2005; Triandis & Gelfand, 1998). Bandura’s argument from Social Cognitive Theory is that, despite all socio-economic and cultural determinants, people always bring in their personal, intrapsychic determinants into the mix (Bandura, 2016), which arguably plays a larger role in individualistic cultures. This means that socio-cultural and individual needs collide – firstly, on the grounds that needs are scaffold within a normative, intracultural framework of conflict-mediation and secondly, that the mediation of needs is structured as a negotiation (or power-game) between intrapsychic, environmental and behavioral determinants. It appears that it is the organization of discourse that governs the satisfaction of competing needs, which is why the structure of the normative discourse would be more indicative for measuring underlying social motivation.

The distributed needs argument. There is another issue to consider when looking at distributed needs. Beyond single-group identification, a person can assume social memberships among multiple groups (Hogg & Vaughan, 2002). Overlapping group-loyalties determine a person’s motivation to comply with existing ingroup norms, to mediate arising outgroup conflicts and to establish forms of distributed commitments across groups. In modern societies, ingroup identification is no more sufficient as a single criterion for managing social life since multiple group memberships and overlapping group identities have become the norm, rather than the exception. People experience the divergent needs to fit in, the need to stay truthful to oneself, the need to arrive at one’s own conclusions but also the need to stay loyal and committed to one’s group. Such diverse needs require mediation. Based on the cultural, contextual and situational dependence of needs, the question arises if needs make for a useful scientific concept to measure social motivation by assuming them to act as a goal (or telos) towards which all motivation converges.

The problem of need-based theories (2): Do innate needs empirically exist or should we rather talk about open developmental pathways? 

The argument of needs as probabilistic clusters.The term ‘needs’ seems peculiar when used to describe social motivation since we typically associate needs, in common language use, with physiological needs, something that we inherently require but that is created by our organism and emerges independent of volition. When, e.g., Self-determination Theory (SDT) talks about the needs to relate, to develop competence and autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 2012; Deci & Ryan, 2000), we could substitute the term ‘needs’ by the expression ‘probabilistic clusters of processes (leading to outcomes of empowered autonomy, increased competence and improved social relations) as outcomes of optional developmental pathways. The case is similar to Maslow’s example. For example, a person may feel the desire to develop competence and autonomy, but the involved social costs (by forces of relatedness and sharing limited resources with others) may keep him or her from taking the envisioned path. Different needs can compete with each other and they can reinforce as much as inhibit each other.  Besides, we should not forget that people also negate autonomy, relatedness and competence in cases where people regard others’ needs as a threat to their communities, privilege or way of life.

Measuring social motivation – other suggestions

In their paper ‘How to Measure Motivation: A Guide for the Experimental Social Psychologist’, Touré-Tillery and Fishback (2014) advocate to differentiate between outcome-focused motivation (“getting it done”) and process-focused motivation (doing it happily” or “doing it right”). As in many experimental approaches, behaviour is operationalized by the speed participants pursue a goal, task-performance (the better participants perform, the more motivated they indicate) and by the preferential choices they make. The authors suggest differentiating between intrinsic motivation, driven by enjoyment and interest with the focus on process, and means-focused, goal-oriented motivation with the focus on outcomes, such as e.g., finishing a project. Although we may see the merit in being able to analyse, e.g., an individual maladaptive pattern in learning processes this way, the social dimension of the concept remains unclear.

Measuring social motivation entails, by definition, investigating interaction effects between individuals, smaller groups and large populations as well as between-group interactions. In order to address effects of social psychology, the authors would need to extend their approach and take, e.g., individual- versus group-induced motivation into account (such as motivation with or without superordinate goals), or to compare e.g., the behaviour of competing groups.

There is certainly not a single ‘correct’ way of measuring social motivation. Methods of analysis range from qualitative studies among small groups to traditional, tried-and-tested statistics and data analysis of representative groups to big data models provided by Bayesian networks when it comes to very large sample sizes. What matters, in any case, is the relevance and meaningfulness of research: Does research help people to govern their lives? Do findings provide a deeper understanding how technology transforms our social identity? Can we predict and prevent harmful social behavior? How can we support inclusive social norms, control social aggression and mediate social conflicts? How can we gain insight into issues such as bias correction and stereotype formation?

What does really drive people?

(1) Ideologies, religions, folk beliefs, traditions and group interests

The world’s cultures, independent of size and influence, started their foundation in religion and spiritual systems. People grow up in their respective traditions that are practiced and internalised. In Western societies, we can add non-theist traditions such as rationalism, liberalism and socialism to the list of mental constructs that provide goal-directed motivation for people to act upon. Such mental systems, in short ideologies, are psychologically rich constructs since they combine affective, cognitive and behavioural determinants. The question is how salient such motivation appears within a culture, inclusive of ingroup variance. Besides official ideologies, it is complementary folk theories about the world, ranging from superstitious beliefs to common sense, that influence peoples’ judgment. Cultural ideologies are passed on by tradition. Generally, ideologies are internalised and become to this extent, according to the typology of SDT (Ryan, Kuhl & Deci, 1997), introjected regulation (see 2b): People identify with their cultural normative beliefs and do not merely act upon them for the sake of transactional compliance. Ideologies refer to the cognitive construction of mental worlds. The advantage to methodologically separate ideology from introjected regulation is that similar ideology (e.g., Buddhism or Islam) can entail very different cultural practice when it comes to managing social affect. Ideology extends to economic attitudes and behaviour since groups act on the premise of underlying salient beliefs justifying ingroup versus outgroups interests.

(2) Internalized regulation

(2a) Social norms: The fabric of society

Social norms constitute the most significant force of driving group behaviour. Social norms represent the expectations that others have about us as much as we expect others to comply within a socially predictable pattern of behaviour. Albert Bandura, e.g., is most commonly known as the researcher who conducted the ‘Bobo the Clown’ experiment, but few know about his psychological interventions of changing social norms in Africa in AIDS/ HIV education and preventing female genital mutilation. Much social work today, e.g., projects conducted by the UN, is based on understanding and modifying local social norms (Mackie et al., 2015). Most of human behavior in everyday life is governed by social norms (Biccieri, 2006).

(2b) Introjected regulation: Honour, Face and Shame

Social norms and ideologies overlap in collectivist cultures, described in SDT as introjected regulation (Ryan et al, 2000). Examples are honor-shame cultures of the Mediterranean and the Middle East as well as face-based cultures in Asia. In such cultures, norms evoke strong personal consequences for the individual in terms of sanctions by shame or affective rewards for maintaining collective honour and ‘face’. Methodologically researchers need to decide to which degree ideologies, introjected regulation and social norms overlap, this is to measure their degree of congruence. Results can provide useful insights on the degree of collective-heteronomous versus personal-autonomous regulation. It is important to note that concepts of honour, face and shame relate to moral affect, whereby ideology refers to the cognitive construction of the mental world.

(3) Integrated regulation: Intergroup consensus, cooperation and collective creativity

People’s ability to interact with outgroups and to integrate their personal perspectives with those of others is described in SDT as integrated regulation (Ryan et al, 2000). In a globalised world that is building on highly interconnected economies, groups don’t operate in isolation anymore. Integrated regulation demands the accommodation of outgroup perspectives and, unlike ideological and identified regulation, requires the modification of people’s cognitive models as it entails the negotiation, compromise, consensus and maintenance of social contracts among outgroups. Besides, it also drives creative solutions for groups to be of service to one another.

(4) Amotivation and metacognitive control: High dependence versus high independence

Besides these three mainstream types of social motivation, behaviour is potentially driven by two other types of regulation. One type is  amotivation (characterized by the lack of motivation and absence of intentionality), such as e.g., in the case of forced labour or imposed rules of a majority onto a minority. In such cases, motivation is exercised as social control and it is typically regulated by external forces. The last type, arguably most significant for a society’s progress, are metacognitive competencies. They describe a population’s capacity to reflect upon their collectively held assumptions about the justification of social norms beyond simply abiding by them. By exercising metacognitive evaluation, people are able to reflect upon the consequences of their actions, motivated individually (a) ‘due to myself’ (individual metacognition) as well as socially (b) by keeping others in mind, being motivated ‘due to others’ (social metacognition) (Kim et al., 2013). Metacognition was originally defined as the ‘thinking about thinking’, (Flavell, 1979), meaning in social context the distributed ability among a given population to regulate cognition.

An example of how a spectral analysis of a population’s social motivation could be conducted is visualised in Figure 1 in the hypothetical comparison between two populations.

hypothetical measureFigure 1: The analysis of various types of social motivation provides a more coherent picture of a population’s socio-psychological profile. What would the illustrated profile tell us?

How would Hofstede’s categories fare in such a new model?

Hofstede’s 6D  model (Hofstede, 2001) measures the parameters of cultural power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long-term orientation and indulgence. Individualism can be assessed by the presence of personal norms (versus social norms) and individual metacognition as a typical trait of individualist cultures. Power distance correlates with ideology and, arguably, a combined measure would be more insightful since we could draw inferences between official ideological agendas, actual sociopolitical-economic hierarchies and cultural practice (introjected regulation). Such triangulated measure would describe more adequately what people think, how they behave (cultural practice) and how they feel about social interaction within their culture. Long-term orientation is related to planning and can be subsumed under metacognitive regulation, which applies equally for uncertainty avoidance. This leaves only the cultural clusters of masculinity-femininity and indulgence to further discussion. Below an example comparing British and Thai culture according to Hofstede (Figure 2).


Figure 2: Comparing British and Thai culture. Source: Geert Hofstede Centre (2016), available at https://geert-hofstede.com                                                                                                                                    

Hofstede’s assumption of feminine-masculine cultural differences seems methodologically doubtful since gender roles (as the main determinant) are by themselves defined by culture, leading to a circular argument: In more gender-equal societies, differences dissolve, rendering the premise of salient masculinity-femininity categories unreliable.

Hofstede writes that “A low score (Feminine) on the dimension means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and quality of life. A Feminine society is one where  the quality of life is the sign of success and standing out from the crowd is not admirable. The fundamental issue here is what motivates people, wanting to be the best (Masculine) or liking what you do (Feminine).” (Hofstede, 2016).

The association with women as predominantly caring and men as predominantly achieving appears to be a biased and outdated assumption for modern pluralistic societies as much as for many traditional-collectivist cultures. On a cultural level, it would be more useful to measure gender-roles in association with cultural practices (e.g., equal access to education, equal pay and rights etc.) contrasted against prevailing ideology since these factors relate more meaningfully to social motivation, attitudes, behaviour and the gap between official ideological agendas and social reality.


Photograph above: A woman in Congo carrying firewood. Across cultures, women care for their children and simultaneously ensure the family’s survival by hard work. How would Hofstede’s categories of masculinity versus femininity make sense in such cases? Source: AP/ Jerome Delay


SDT’s model of motivation appears as a conceptually and empirically sound approach although the constitution of universal human needs seems hard to defend due to the context-dependent nature of needs and ambiguity of their interpretation. Given that people’s behaviour is based on socially-constructed reasons, it is also doubtful that experimental social psychology is able to address complex, real-world problems within a single step. What works under controlled conditions in a laboratory still requires validation in real-life context. In order to obtain a holistic picture of a population’s social motivation types, research needs to take into consideration instances of amotivation, ideological motivation, social norms, introjected regulation, integrated regulations as well as metacognitive competencies. Most types of social regulation work heteronomously since regulation is evoked via ingroup dynamics and not by personal agency. It is only integrated regulation and metacognitive regulation that requires groups to adjust their mindsets according to changing environmental conditions and that evoke autonomous regulation. Hofstede’s 6D model could be redefined more meaningfully by collapsing the criteria of uncertainty avoidance and long-term orientation under (well-researched) metacognitive competencies. Categories such as femininity and masculinity inevitably evoke gender-based bias since the interpretation of these categories is by itself culture-dependent.


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Emerging Social Design & Innovation: What does it take to Make the World a Better Place?


Picture: A BRAC community health worker conducting a survey in the Korail slum, Bangladesh. Most NGOs are engaged in positive social change. Where is social innovation design different?

The following comment was inspired by the Design & Social Innovation Symposium Asia-Pacific (DESIAP) held at TCDC, Bangkok, July 2016 in coordination with Northumbria University, Newcastle and RMIT University.

PDF Version Emerging Social Design – Joana Kompa 2016

Introduction: Our Traditional Notion of a Designer

Designers, so our folk understanding, create beautiful and useful things for everyday life. Designers are responsible for graphics, the appearance, and functionality of consumer products, pleasant interior designs, innovative digital media and so on. In short, designers make marketing work and they assist brands to become successful. This is how designers find themselves professionally sandwiched between corporate clients and target-grouped consumers. In this light, the work of traditional designers renders instrumental to economic development, but not necessarily social progress.

Social Design Philosophy: Empathy, Sustainability, and Interdisciplinary Approach

When it comes to, what I label temporarily, as ‘social innovation design’ (or ‘social design’ in short) this perspective turns 180 degrees. Here, in a vivid and innovative space of their own, designers work on issues such as integrating vulnerable populations into society, revealing the narratives behind our fair-trade coffee via digital geo-tracking, designing combined care services for impoverished elderly, strengthening local communities by helping them trade their products or helping local schools to improve their pedagogical and academic quality. Most of such design initiatives, similar to projects regularly featured in TED-Talks, represent variations of social design. Social design, broadly speaking, develops design-based interventions that empower and enrich the lives of individuals and communities.

Three key concepts appear to drive social design. The central idea is empathy, the identification with the other. Design development is guided by the philosophy of empowering communities and vulnerable individuals to live in dignity. The second idea is the realisation that lifeworld resources, social and natural, are limited and any kind of development only makes sense once it becomes sustainable. This argument entails the consequential notion that design development should not be conducted at somebody else’s expense. To outsource the social costs and toxicity of development has become non-sustainable in a globalised and interconnected world (Wallerstein, 2004). Thirdly, by dealing with complex systems, social innovation design requires taking a multi-disciplinary approach by inviting most diverse faculties to the table such as e.g., design, sociology, social psychology, engineering and information technology. Anything that is man-made, physical or conceptual, and that has consequences for groups of people can be considered as social design.

Unlike our folk understanding of design, social design is not morally neutral, it is ethical. Social designers are aware of the consequences that cultural-economic power hierarchies and governmental policies have for people in real life. Social design asks not only about the benefit of design for a small group, but it includes the principle of non-maleficence, the intention to prevent harm to people. This excludes the use of exploitative relationships and an unfair distribution of social costs. Ideally, from a developmental- and social psychology perspective, social design assists peoples’ development over their entire lifetime, both in their individual and collective agency (Bandura, 2006).

How scientific should designers become when addressing social systems? 

Design thinking and scientific thinking share similar notions when it comes to research. Without evidence-based research, there can be no efficient design. Solutions are, after all, developed and not assumed. Designers are not as rigorous as scientists are when it comes to research methodology (thinking of elaborate statistical analysis for example), and they rarely employ explicit theoretical frameworks. It is suggested in the following that designers and scientists would benefit greatly if they would meet somewhere in the middle. If social innovation design is bound to succeed beyond grassroots experiments it can only convince official decision makers when the employed methodology is transparent and can be replicated when it is not arbitrary on one hand, but accommodates the diversity of design approaches on the other.

One problem, predominantly in contemporary Anglo-Saxon science, is the dominance of quantitative research. The great majority of peer-reviewed articles features research based on quantitative data analysis, whereby qualitative- and mixed research are rare by comparison and often frowned upon. For example, in health services, a mere 3% of published papers consist of mixed studies. Quantitative articles accounted for 91% and qualitative studies for only 6% of all publications (Wisdom et al., 2012). Besides traditional stereotypes of numbers being more useful, ‘objective’ and reliable, against some evidence to the contrary, qualitative research has a hard stand. One of the reasons is that when dealing with fellow human beings, researchers need to develop complex soft-skills. Unlike, for example, particle physicists, social scientists cannot pretend to be mere onlookers on objectively measurable processes when peoples’ lives and well-being is at stake. Another reason for the paucity of good qualitative research might be that training a student in data analysis is far easier than conducting training in qualitative research, which depends heavily on human resources and the transfer of social- and communicative skills. But qualitative research may be just one of the key ingredients that we need in social design.

Good research design needs to be trustworthy in order to gain public recognition. This entails that research can be replicated, that the processing of social data can be audited and the coding of qualitative data is conducted in a scientific manner, e.g., by employing inter-coder reliability, adequate data sampling strategies and by developing proper interview protocols (Charmaz, 2008; Hill, 2012; Wertz et al., 2011). Qualitative scientific research models, such as case studies or Grounded Theory are cooperative in nature and furthermore offer designers a theoretical lens (Creswell, 2013) to frame design perspectives more accurately. Explicit frameworks help avoid biases via theoretical bracketing and careful reflective practice, which is critical to cross-cultural research. A scientifically-guided methodology is key to public recognition and credibility when it comes to defending design applications in follow-up discourse, simply because designers can prove to the wider public that solution development was grounded in good reasons and solid inferences.

Operationalizing Sustainability: A Hypothetical Model

Qualitative factors play a major role in social design since we want to know how people feel before and after design interventions, how design solutions change people’s environmental and social perceptions and attitudes. On the other hand, we need to investigate peoples’ networks, the social scaffolding in which design development takes place. Two factors are of particular interest to social design research, which is (a) the social network structures affected by a design intervention and (b) the change of experienced quality in human relations within a network, before and after an intervention. This approach suggests a mixed research model based on social network analysis as well as cognitive-behavioral constructivism.

Within a combined qualitative and quantitative model, sustainability can be operationalized as the equilibrium between two unsustainable states:

(1) A non-sustainable qualitative state is a state where a small number of actors enjoy highly meaningful relations, but the sparse distribution of these relations cannot evoke normative power within the wider population. (2), By contrast, a non-sustainable quantitative state is a state where relations are widely distributed among the population, but they are not experienced as meaningful or worthwhile enough to be maintained. Sustainability emerges within the Goldilocks zone where meaningful human relations are shared among a large-enough number of members (Bicchieri, 2006), allowing for human empowerment to emerge as a normative expectation. The hypothetical operationalization of sustainability is illustrated in Figure 1.

sustainabilityFigure 1: Operationalizing Sustainability: How are design interventions themselves sustainable?

The Implications of Social Networks for Human Relationships

I shall briefly illustrate the relevance for an integrated qualitative-quantitative (QUAL/ QUAN) approach from a social psychology perspective. The underlying assumption and research argument is that reciprocal interaction effects govern QUAL- and QUAN factors, meaning that the structure of a social network has as much as an influence on human relations as relations and social motivation affect the network structure in return.

Applying the motivational model of Self-determination Theory (SDT) (Deci & Ryan, 2012), social network types can be mapped to social motivation. For example, in a hierarchical society or group (1), as illustrated in Figure 2 below, it is more likely that members govern their cognition and behaviour according to religious or political ideology, such as in feudal societies, or based on folk theories such as in tribal and indigenous communities. Strong ingroup identities (2) are typically based on rigid, socially exclusive norms. Independent groups tend to exclude outgroups, reward ingroup compliance and punish deviations from social norms. In SDT, this type of social motivation is described as introjected regulation. Examples are collectivist honour cultures of the Middle East or Asian cultures where saving and maintaining face is of importance.

The moment groups cooperate (3), they acknowledge their differing interests but also promote shared superordinate goals, described as integrated regulation. Finally, in modern and highly interconnected groups and societies (4), social regulation is facilitated by inclusive social norms (‘identified regulation’) and their corresponding metacognitive justification. As a consequence of denser interconnectedness, higher levels of mutually integrated perspectives free individual members from heteronomous social regulation types, resulting in the emergence of individualistic cultures. Social designers need to be aware of such cultural differences, not only because people display different cultural attitudes and norms that deserve respect, but because local phenomenology evolves co-dependent with social network structures. The way we see the world is largely determined by the way we have learned to see it from others through deeply embedded social learning processes (Bandura, 1977).

NETWORKS and social motivation WEB

Figure 2: Network structures and corresponding social motivation types

To this argument, network structures intrinsically determine social motivation and vice versa. QUAL/QUAN co-dependency supports the call for innovative new data collection and processing methodologies. This extended understanding of methodological flexibility reaches beyond traditional statistics (without necessarily replacing them) and embraces in addition research models of computer science such as, e.g., Bayesian networks, which are more sensitive to integrating the measurement of complex qualitative changes.

Case Studies in Design from a Scientific Perspective

A merely scientific view based on statistics might be at odds with design ethics. For example, if a problem is unique or non-representative of a larger population, does this entail that minorities and individuals are not worthy of the provision of a design solution?

On the other hand, there are critical scientific questions that designers should ask when dealing with social topics, such as, e.g. how are a design solutions socially relevant on individual and group level? What is their human merit? Which are the relationships and variables of interest? Do we need a large-n case study? Is the methodological approach cross-sectional, longitudinal or within-case? Can findings create a hypothesis? How can we discover causal pathways within dysfunctional systems? To which extent shall we explore the driving variables and how? By identifying the causes that create and support particular processes, can we replicate process outcomes? (Elman et al., 2016)

The Future of Interdisciplinary Teams

The greatest limitation of many current social design projects seems to lie in the isolated ad hoc employment of methodologies. Although design thinking follows intuitively the same logical path of procedural problem solving as scientific investigation, non-standardized approaches obscure the development of open solution development. Design solutions remain, to this extent, individualised projects of the designer, but they do not necessarily offer help to colleagues who may look for evidence-based, context-transferable templates for their own local problems. A more structured approach for the framing of design problems, data collection, and documented social data processing is therefore required. The blurring of lines between traditional NGOs and dedicated design teams might turn out mutually beneficial, with NGOs providing established local infrastructure and designers providing innovative concepts and specialised expertise.

The future of social design lies in gaining competencies by employing interdisciplinary teams. Social designers may assume the role of team facilitators, supporting their design team by reflective practice and responsible project management. This entails familiarity and experience in tutoring and coaching teams within problem-based learning scenarios.

Social design is certainly still in its infant stages while the enormous motivation of designers from all over the world to contribute to positive social change is both encouraging and commendable. With some patience and hard work, social design may become our brightest hope to solve local and global problems with pragmatic confidence.


Strengths of social innovation design

  • Empathetic, motivated by ethical societal change
  • Interdisciplinary openness
  • Guided by the idea of social and environmental sustainability
  • Creative and innovative approach

Current weaknesses of social innovation design

  • Lack of standardised and reliable methodology leads to arbitrary outcomes despite procedural problem-solving, resulting in limited meta-contextual usefulness and transferability of design solutions
  • Dealing with vulnerable populations requires adhering to professional ethical guidelines and needs to be approved by official ethics boards. Professional ethical practices, such as obtaining informed consent or ensuring the privacy of data need to be part of standard research and solution implementation procedures
  • No theory creation due to a lack of standardised qualitative methodology
  • Mixed QUAL/ QUAN-methodologies to address sustainability still need to be developed



Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a Psychology of Human Agency. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 1(2), 164-180. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00011.x

Bicchieri, C. (2006). The grammar of society: The nature and dynamics of social norms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Charmaz, K. (2008). Constructing grounded theory, a practical guide through qualitative analysis. Sage Publications Ltd.

Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Motivation, personality, and development within embedded social contexts: An overview of self-determination theory. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), Oxford handbook of human motivation (pp. 85-107). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195399820.001.0001

Elman, C., Gerring, J. , & Mahoney, J. (2016). Case Study Research: Putting the Quant Into the Qual. Sociological Methods And Research, 45(3), 375-391. doi:10.1177/0049124116644273

Hill, C. E. (2012). Consensual qualitative research: A practical resource for investigating social science phenomena. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Wallerstein, I. (2004), WORLD-SYSTEMS ANALYSIS, in World System History , [Ed. George Modelski], Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS), Developed under the Auspices of the UNESCO, Eolss Publishers, Oxford ,UK, [http://www.eolss.net]

Wertz, F.J., Charmaz, K., McMullen, L.M., Josselson, R., Anderson, R. & McSpadden, E. (2011) Five Ways of Doing Qualitative Analysis: Phenomenological Psychology, Grounded Theory, Discourse Analysis, Narrative Research, and Intuitive Inquiry. New York: The Guilford Press.

Wisdom, J. P., Cavaleri, M. A., Onwuegbuzie, A. J., & Green, C. A. (2012). Methodological Reporting in Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Health Services Research Articles. Health Services Research, 47(2), 721–745. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6773.2011.01344.x

Defining Human Agency: Towards an Interdependent Model of Human Autonomy

Jim Tsinganos

Illustration by  (IA Illustration Awards, 2015): Which is my authentic Self?

PDF Version: Defining Human Autonomy, Kompa, J., 2016

Introduction: Beyond money, what makes us truly happy and free?

How could I argue with a Nobel Prize winner? I admire Daniel Kahneman’s work, not only his contributions to behavioural economics but also his recent work on wellbeing and happiness. Kahneman demonstrated that high income improves the evaluation of life, but not necessarily emotional well-being (Kahneman & Deaton, 2010). On the others side, the lack of money can create considerable misery. I had three critical extending thoughts on his well-supported study. The first was that the investigation was limited to addressing individual well-being and life evaluation of a population. In collectivist cultures, for example, group identities and their social positioning play a significant role in perceived collective well-being, not merely income.

Secondly, instead of money we could place general lifeworld resources, e.g., access to healthcare, decent housing, childcare and education for the public. In cultures that offer high-quality public resources, such as e.g., Scandinavian countries, income inequalities are moderated and lesser income is not tantamount to sliding into poverty and misery.

The third thought was that what makes people happy or unhappy is equally dependent on the degree to which they are able to govern their lives, their degree of autonomy. Money is related, but only part of the story. Life satisfaction measures are limited to referring to outcomes that have accumulated over many years. Rational agency, by contrast, represents the ability to create desired futures and to enjoy access to options for making relevant life decisions. Challenges to our agency appear at every step of our biography. To find oneself in the driver’s seat of life appears equally important to well-being as income. People become increasingly unhappy the moment they are marginalised, disempowered and when they are forced against their will to deal with discriminating conditions, rather than creating their own. This Blog entry investigates human agency and its self-regulating structure. It asks about the critical key ideas that constitute autonomous human life.

Albert Bandura’s concept of an ‘Agentic Psychology’ (Bandura, 2006) and Self-Determination Theory (SDT) (Ryan & Deci, 2012) belong to the most influential approaches in contemporary psychology to position human autonomy at the core of scientific research. It is argued in the following that although current theory and research rest on valid intuitions and solid findings regarding human autonomy, an extended framework is required to offer a more socially-coherent understanding of human agency. By exploring the concept of autonomy proposed by philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas, it is investigated how an intersubjective approach to autonomy can provide additional insights for psychological theory. It is argued that Habermas’ concept of human autonomy implies fundamental psychological competencies which cannot be conceptually separated from cognitive faculty when dealing with historically and culturally grown social identities.

Keywords: autonomous versus heteronomous social regulation, private autonomy, social autonomy, moral autonomy, accountable agency, authentic identity

1. Where our folk understanding of autonomy fails

People’s naïve understanding of autonomy entails that we can lead our own life according to our will, according to what we want for ourselves, free of material deprivation and independent of external obligations, governmental control and social pressure. This understanding of private autonomy, as it has been originally framed by Locke and Hobbes, is still the dominant view of modern liberalism and libertarianism.

Supporting the libertarian definition of autonomy as individual independence, Markus and Kitayama’s (1991) influential concept of group-independent (individualistic) versus group-interdependent (collectivistic) cultures defines that Western cultures promote individual independence and separateness of others, whereby Asian, African or Middle-Eastern cultures, prioritise family- and group obligations over individual freedom.

Ryan and Deci (2006) disagree with this idea vehemently and remark that by not differentiating between autonomy and individual independence, cultural relativists imply e.g., that women or Asians do not need autonomy. Their counter-argument is that fitting within a group, acting in accord with traditions or following parents is not a sufficient criterion for a lack of autonomy as long as people internally agree to care for others. The argument against a simple libertarian definition of autonomy (as the absence of compromising external constraints for the individual) can be expedited even further: if autonomy cannot make affirmative commitments to substantive social values, then it remains unclear how such position grounds any particular value commitments. Generally speaking, universal values such as the respect of others or the appreciation of socio-cultural scaffolding would be, counter-intuitively, excluded by a liberalist-libertarian understanding of human agency.

We can act for ourselves as individuals pursuing personal interests, but we can equally act by taking the interests of others wholeheartedly into consideration without compromising personal integrity. Depending on one’s cultural perspective, somebody’s individual freedom might be perceived as somebody else’s selfishness. Identifying autonomy narrowly with individual independence can to this extent not pass as a culturally unbiased perspective.

Another argument rarely considered when discussing individual liberties is the influence of internal disrupting factors on the self, such as anxieties, fears, personal vulnerabilities, mental disorders or pathological personality traits, leaving individual agency compromised. An unquestioned assumption of libertarian philosophy is the sanity and justified perspective of personal decision-making. But what if the individual proves manipulative, deceitful, prone to impulsive risk-taking or simply exercising poor judgment? Individual as well as collective agency are to this argument constructed neither unipolar autonomous nor heteronomous, but they co-exist as a system of mutual checks and balances.

Bandura (2006) addresses the issue of collectivist versus individualist perspectives more pragmatically by differentiating between individual, proxy and collective agency. Besides individual agency, proxy agency regulates cases of indirect control, e.g., when we act on behalf of others or acquire resources via others. In addition, collective agency underpins the fact that in today’s interconnected world we rarely act by ourselves, but within teams and under the moderating influence of larger groups. To limit autonomy exclusively to individual independence would, in the light of real-world interconnectedness and pervading globalization, not conclude relevant and meaningful theory.

2. Intersubjectivity as the key to understanding human autonomy

SDT as well as Bandura agree that strong interactions between individual and collective autonomy exist. Ryan et al. (2005) point out that we depend upon others who support autonomous regulation.  SDT has yielded much research investigating the inhibiting influence of socio-cultural systems on autonomy and intrinsic motivation. Autonomy, in SDT, is not defined by the absence of external influences, but by one’s assent to such inputs. Collective autonomy is experienced by processes of endorsement and decisive identification. Following the philosophical outlines by Heider (1958) and deCharms (1968), SDT insists on the principle of personal causation. Autonomy, literally, means self-governance in SDT and it rests on intrinsic motivation.  The critical question from a socio-cognitive perspective is if intrinsic motivation provides not just a necessary, but a sufficient account of personal autonomy. After all, if assent is an integral element of collective autonomy then an individual’s motivation must be equally based on good implicit or explicit reasons for such agreement. The question is if intrinsic motivation can be conceptualised devoid of cognitive agency, e.g., by solely and automatically following intuitive goals that seem to develop us as an authentic person, or in tandem with self-reflected awareness about intrinsically-motivating reasons.

In this context, SDT (Ryan, Kuhl & Deci, 1997) has developed a comprehensive model of motivation which explains the continuum of heteronomous and autonomous regulation. In SDT, motivation ranges on the scale from amotivation (impersonal) to external regulation (highly controlled), introjected regulation (moderately controlled), identified regulation (moderately autonomous), to integrated and intrinsic regulation, both latter types being highly autonomous. External regulation is better known from behaviourism under the term of operant conditioning (Skinner, 1953). It is argued in the following that integrated and intrinsic motivations, to be truly autonomous, require the involvement of metacognitive reasoning. This notion implies that an individual asserts herself to behave according to good reasons and is capable of evoking intrinsic motivation via acts of personal rationalisation.

Culturally-bound identities develop, as described in SDT, on a continuum between various types of heteronomous and autonomous social regulation. Christine Koorsgaard (1996) coined the term ‘practical identity’ representing this notion. Practical identity, which is governed by locally-grounded heteronomous and autonomous types of regulation, manifests peoples’ socio-cultural reflection on values and normative self-concept. Practical identity is in the following is referred to as ‘practical agency’.

An initial mapping of individual phenomenology to heteronomous versus autonomous regulation-types, largely congruent with SDT, is summarised in Figure 1. Intersubjectivity, within the presented coordinate system, implies that subjective internal motivations, reflections, desires, experience and conscience do not stand in isolation (or prior) to the social world, but are socially constructed. Agentic psychological experiences and processes ‘are in virtue of being elements of our interaction with others’ (Anderson, p.93).

defining autonomy

Figure1: Indicated in red are types of social regulation which are set within a coordinate system between the axis of autonomy versus heteronomy and individual versus social psychology. Autonomous regulation extends to the conscious recognition of outgroups, whereby heteronomous regulation deals predominantly with internal role beliefs to ensure ingroup coherence.

3. Bandura’s concept of agency and the question of free will

For Bandura (2006, 1977), the self is socially constructed through transactional experiences with the environment. Analogously to SDT, it is cognitive competencies that enable agency, namely intentionality, future-directed forethought, self-reactiveness and self-reflectiveness. Agency, for Bandura, is not represented by the metaphysical assumption of a ‘free will’, but by the ability to make causal contributions to the course of events. Bandura’s latter notion is a novel reply to reductionist biology and neuroscience who regard individual autonomy as an illusion created by the brain (Pinker, 2000). Following Bandura’s argument, even if mental processes were in fact fully determined by underlying brain processes, the probabilistic nature of physics would still allow for us to draw causal and conditional inferences to sequences of events. Reductionist arguments are to this extent not tangent and relevant to cognitive ability. Habermas’ argument resembles Bandura’s: if we assume that autonomous agency is defined as the ability to respond to socially constructed reasons, it is convincing to conceptualise human agency as a natural part of the social world.

Identity theory, the assumption that physical states are identical to mind-states, is more an academic proposition rather than a scientific theory. The problem of Identity Theory is that it is theoretically and practically impossible to prove that a person’s subjective experience equals corresponding ‘objective’ brain-states. Any methodology would require admitting a first person self-report (and all its uncertainties) as evidence to prove identity to an objective account, which would be self-contradictory to its truth proposition. To argue with Karl Popper, Identity Theory can, for this reason, not be methodologically falsified and therefore does not qualify as a scientific theory.

Alternatively, a more pragmatic and intuitive idea would be to understand the mind as the action that the brain (as a biological organ) performs. The brain performs the correlated action of mind, which, empowered by the resource of context-separated memory, is capable of remodelling neuronal connections, enabling both upward and downward causation between brain and mind. Unlike routinized minds, the mind can go offline and direct focus on mental content, away from environmental stimuli (Vierkant, 2013). By formulating mental content independent of external influences, we are endowed with the capacity to conceptualise competing mental models to make sense of the world. The latter is no trivial fact considering that heteronomous regulation can hinder and distort cognitive ability and learning.

Regarding reductionist hypotheses, research on human memory and underlying learning processes stand on solid ground and there are no reasons, rather than ideological, to reduce the complexity and richness of mental processes and their meaning towards a single-minded, convergent proposition.

4. Habermas’ five dimensions of autonomy

In his insightful introduction to Habermas’ concepts of autonomy, Joel Anderson (Fultner, 2011) explains the key ideas of an intersubjective account of autonomy by their absence. He writes “To lack political autonomy is to be subjected to illegitimate domination by others, specifically by not being integrated in an appropriate way in processes of collective self-determination.  To lack moral autonomy is to be incapable of letting intersubjectively shared reason determine one’s will. To lack accountable agency is to behave as a result of compelling forces rather than to act for reasons. To lack personal autonomy is to be unable to engage in critical reflection about what to do with one’s life. And to lack authentic identity is to have one’s claim to recognition vis-à-vis others get no update” (Anderson, p. 91).

The five mentioned key concepts of autonomy shall be explained in detail.

4.1 Socio-political autonomy in relation to private autonomy

For Habermas, private and public autonomy evolve reciprocally within social interaction. To this extent, they presuppose each other and emerge jointly. The intersubjective role of both types of autonomy is formulated stronger as compared to SDT or Bandura. Private autonomy does not only become difficult when public autonomy erodes and dissolves, as Anderson points out, it ceases to exist. Without a social framework that guarantees a person legal rights, impartial democratic institutions, provisions such as healthcare, education, opportunities to work, income, decent housing and general social inclusion, private autonomy cannot materialise. Private autonomy is in this light a fundamentally social construct, which resonates with Vygotsky’s assumption (1978) that individualism can only develop within adequate social scaffolding.

Habermas refers to these conditions as ‘lifeworld resources’. Private autonomy cannot practically be separated from the very social conditions and resources that enable and develop it. Ryan and Deci (2011) recognise the influences that social contexts exercise on inhibiting or developing autonomy and intrinsic motivation. To this account, it is of interest to psychology how individual and collective practical agency develops as either socially inclusive mindsets (in the form of solidarity, democratic ethos and public empathy for others) or socially exclusive concepts (in the form of privilege, the protection of group rights and social hierarchies), this is how lifeworld resource management is psychologically constructed.

The architecture of the lifeworld is not arbitrary but requires being rational to support its members developing and maintaining personal autonomy. This implies psychological prerequisites such as successful childhood socialisation, a functional public education system and independent media allowing for the open discussion and negotiation of societal problems.

grammar school

Picture above: Public education is a good example for the social scaffolding of individual autonomy by providing lifeworld resources. Image by The Portsmouth Grammar School

4.2 Moral autonomy

Moral self-determination is for Habermas indistinguishable to a determination by reason. Bandura elaborates from a psychological perspective “In the development of moral agency, individuals adopt standards of right and wrong that serve as guides and deterrents for conduct. In this self-regulatory process, people monitor their conduct and the conditions under which it occurs, judge it in relation to their moral standards and perceived circumstances, and regulate their actions by the consequences they apply to themselves” (Bandura, 2006, p.171, see also Bandura 1991). Self-regulation and monitoring are metacognitive competencies that involve the cognitive evaluation of circumstances.

Analogously, Habermas’ extends, beyond automatic self-regulation, to cognitive competence for the evaluation of goals, attitudes and behaviour. This entails not only reflections about mental content and how it is processed, but the ability to metacognitively question how our goals, attitudes and behaviour affect others. Under heteronomous influence, practical agency can effectively compromise cognitive capacity, e.g., when people follow ideologies or become obsessed with defending group privileges. In such cases, they typically demonstrate limited motivational and cognitive capacity to consider the perspectives of others.

This conundrum recognises Hegel’s argument against Kant’s deontology; put more simply, that morality is not a faceless abstraction of universal principles, but a rich tapestry of peoples’ conflicting desires, personal goals and motives, natural interests, beliefs, shared cultural values, behavioural patterns, emotive-cognitive limitations and underlying life experiences.

Without being able to reflect on the constraints that are imposed by practical agency, local identity cannot constitute moral status. Peoples’ intentions and behaviour might be justified from their personal perspective, they may be experienced as morally right in local context, but they may not have moral worth in the light of inherent intersubjective obligations and norms. Folk beliefs about moral legitimacy usually lack justification in every context, which is addressed in the light of meta-contextual and intersubjective validity.

This is why it makes sense to psychologically frame in-situ cognitive agency as a function of our practical agency, but defining socio-cognitive competence as the general ability to reason practical agency across contexts and integrating with the perspective of others. The latter empowers moral agency as the ability to take intersubjective perspectives and claims into consideration.


Picture above: The behaviour of enraged football hooligans is governed by group aggression as an example of heteronomous regulation. Perceived rivals are not only socially excluded, but intentionally harmed in the absence of cognitive capacity. Photo: AFP

4.3 Accountable agency

As a result of moral agency (the ability to reflectively respond to socially constructed reasons), we hold each other accountable to this extent. We decide whether somebody’s attitudes and behaviour is either praiseworthy or blameworthy, and we usually expect of others (as we do of ourselves) that we can justify our actions, that we know what we are doing. Since accountable agency is expressed by reciprocal social expectations, it has a normative character.  Without such accountability, responsibilities cannot be defined. It is no small matter if people only assume or think that they are responsible, or if they also feel that they are responsible, that they demonstrate a genuine motivation to translate thought into corresponding behaviour. We may call this ability executive moral agency.

Psychologically, there are limitations to accountability, such as e.g., in the case of mental disorders or learning disabilities. An assertion to reason can only be performed in the discursive exchange with other reason-holders. As concluded previously, practical agency empowers and limits cognitive agency, and subsequently in-situ moral agency. Like in the case of cognitive competence, moral agency requires being differentiated from moral accountability. A person might display limited moral agency, such as in the case of drunk driving, but is still morally responsible for her actions in the light of intersubjective reason.

On a wider scale, the major challenge of a technology-driven world is compounded by the fact that responsibilities are diluted and distributed over complex systems. This is why we differentiate e.g., between primary and secondary affected groups – those who are directly affected by new technologies, policies and social changes, and those who are indirectly affected. More than often, we are psychologically disconnected from the consequences of our actions. We may not realise that some of the products we buy depend on the exploitation of others far beyond our borders. Likewise, environmental disasters do not know national borders and secondary affected groups might span across generations, such as in the Bhopal gas tragedy. Beyond the psychological challenge of lifeworld-complexity, Bandura (2007) has exemplified ‘selective moral disengagement’ as a major topic in social psychology. Moral disengagement in the case of ecological sustainability is for Bandura defined by “reducing accountability by displacement and diffusion of responsibility; ignoring, minimising, and disputing harmful effects; and dehumanising and blaming the victims and derogating the messengers of ecologically bad news” (Bandura, pg.8). Bandura (2016) illustrates mechanisms of moral disengagement in complex societies in case studies involving the entertainment industry, the gun lobby, the corporate world as well as the social psychology of terrorism and counter-terrorism.


Picture above: The Bhopal industrial disaster left 600,000 people exposed to toxic gases with an estimated death toll of 15,000. Even 30 years later, many women who were exposed have given birth to physically and mentally disabled children. Archive Photo: AP Photo/Sondeep Shankar

From the perspective of SDT, intrinsic motivation is required to exercise interventions promoting environmental and social sustainability. Since moral executive agency is grounded in autonomous, intrinsic motivation, contemporary social psychology needs to investigate and contextualize the psychological prerequisites enabling moral agency and moral executive agency.

4.4 Personal autonomy

Personal autonomy encompasses self-governance in the widest sense; to decide freely how we lead our life, how we bring up and educate our children, whom we love, how we plan our careers or how we contribute to society. Philosophical approaches tend to define personal autonomy by universal standards, such as internal cohesiveness, reasons-responsiveness and so on. Habermas’ concept avoids abstracted concepts and emphasises the socio-historical development of autonomous agency. To this argument, personal autonomy is defined by the competencies required to navigate through an increasingly complex and globalised world.

We have to make dramatically more decisions as compared to our grandparents and parents and have to deal with widely expanded options for decision-making and assuming the responsibilities that these decisions imply. In this context, SDT (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan 1995) has defined autonomy, competence and relatedness as core interrelating human needs. To avoid regress into heteronomy, personal autonomy depends on the acquisition of navigational competencies as much as it requires to be protected in terms of socio-political autonomy. In conclusion, we can conceptualise personal competence and social autonomy as the internal and external scaffolding required to develop human agency.

4.5 Authentic identity (Authenticity)

In Habermas’ intersubjective understanding of autonomous selfhood, authentic identity is not, as one may intuitively assume, expressed by one’s uniqueness based on assertive personal self-description. Authenticity is rather based on a two-stage process. The first step is to understand what and how one feels, thinks and behaves, while the second step tries to make sense of the experienced account. We attempt to render our personal existence intelligible, which entails the possibility to fail making sense of oneself. As such, we are naturally criticizable to ourselves. Authentic identity is neither based on blind self-assertion, nor decided by external majority vote but by entering an internal discourse attempting to figure ourselves out meaningfully, to make sense of ourselves.

Habermas links reflective self-description to public language when he elaborates:

“From the ethical point of view we clarify clinical questions of the successful and happy, or better, not misspent, life, which arise in the context of a particular collective form of life or of an individual life history. Practical reflection takes the form of a process of hermeneutic self-clarification. It articulates strong evaluations in light of which I orient my self-understanding. In this context the critique of self-deceptions and of symptoms of a compulsive or alienated mode of life takes its yardstick from the idea of a consciously guided and coherent course of life, where the authenticity of a life-project can be understood as a higher-level validity claim on an analogy with the claim to truthfulness of expressive speech acts.” (Habermas & Cronin, 1996, p.341)

Claims to authentic identity can, in this extended definition, only be made by living a life that supports the truthful expression of feelings. This excludes the possibility of inauthenticity, the construction of a flawed or narcissist self-portrayal which deviates from the good faith we would reasonably place into an honest self-account. Placing a self-monitored account performs an act of vouching which is processed either internally by one’s consciousness, or externally by one’s self-positioning in relation to loved ones and friends. As Anderson notes to this point “Vouching is a matter of issuing to others a guarantee that one can make good (or fail to make good on) by living up to one’s claim. (…) We can aspire, in private, to live up to certain goals, but we can vouch for ourselves only to others.” (Anderson, p.108)

Lastly, in avoidance of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), we try to align authentic identity with corresponding moral beliefs about the justification of supportive social conditions to serve personal autonomy. Personal identities based on heteronomous social regulation types experience authenticity in terms of fulfilling social obligations, complying to collective norms and executing moral agency in the light of group-interests. To this extent, group-interdependent identities are unable (or limited) in creating discursive internal accounts although the culturally embedded expression of feelings is genuine.

5. Human autonomy in the light of psychological theory

Lifeworld resources such as public education, a social market economy, reliable democratic institutions and fair public discourse are prerequisites to private autonomy. For this reason, social and private autonomy evolve reciprocally and in codependency. Since lifeworld resources are historically and culturally grounded, such resources are psychologically constructed within the spectrum of autonomous and heteronomous types of social regulation. In order to develop autonomy and relatedness, democratic institutions and organisations, such as people’s workplace, need to accommodate opportunities for personal growth and the fostering of competencies. Without the support of lifelong learning initiatives and the continued care for people’s professional development, to argue with SDT, social- and personal autonomy remain elusive, they are not empowered to carry agency in society.

From an individual perspective and in everyday life, private autonomy realises as practical- and authentic agency. Practical agency is linked to the ability to make sense of our social world, which entails questioning its fairness and openness, whereby authentic identity is linked to the ability to make sense of our autobiographic life. Both aspects of private autonomy are grounded in reason, the attempt to make coherent sense out of ourselves and the social world. Such an intersubjective and interdependent understanding of human agency is also compatible with established psychological frameworks such as the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991) since social- and subjective norms and their underlying cognitive assessment are conceptualised as distinct factors evoking behavioural outcomes (see Figure 2).

The same applies to Triandis’ Theory of Interpersonal Behaviour (Triandis, 1997, 1980) by including social roles and self-concept as critical elements of personal agency and recognising the central function of affective motivation. By including role beliefs and habits, Triandis’ model acknowledges the culturally-heteronomous aspects of practical identity that rational choice approaches neglect. The concluding argument of an intersubjective approach is that by grounding human agency in socially-constructed reason, we become accountable to ourselves and to others. The subsequent psychological ability to take over responsibilities is a prominent theme in Bandura’s latest work, which investigates not only self-efficacy, but also the option of moral disengagement (Bandura 2006a, 2006b, 2007, 2016). 

Bandura’s ‘agentic‘ approach is compatible with Habermas’ sociological approach insofar he describes human behavior as a result of tradic codetermination, conceptualizing that the causes of human behavior are reciprocally rooted in personal (intrapsychic) determinants, environmental determinants, such as available life world resources, and behavioral determinants, such as socio-cultural mindsets and social practices (Bandura, 2008).


SDT as well as Bandura’s concept of human agency share much in common with Habermas’ account of intersubjective autonomy, in particular in regard to the interactions between the individual, culture and society. This comes to no surprise since intersubjectivity, as defined in sociology, and interpersonal relations, as defined in psychology, share the basic assumption that social spheres are created by meaningful interactions between people. Habermas’ approach extends psychological areas of investigations to the rational construction of the lifeworld and the management of lifeworld resources. Since social autonomy protects and empowers personal autonomy, empirical societal conditions for supporting autonomy cannot be methodologically separated from the constitution of personal autonomy. Bandura goes as far as to state that when looking at autonomy in de-contextualized isolation”Autonomous agency is an illusion.” (Bandura, 2016, p.24).

Personal autonomy is not only, as elaborated in SDT, a matter of subjective well-being, but it entails the acquisition of competencies to support personal self-rationalization as well as the development of social resources with others.  Moral agency and cognitive agency correlate and are measured against general cognitive competence to validate executive moral agency.

True moral autonomy encompasses the abilities of self-regulation and self-sanctioning, emotive-motivational as well as cognitive resources. A mere cognitive understanding of moral problems would be incapable of evoking motivation to elicit behaviour and prove epiphenomenal. In the worst case, the mere intellectualization of moral issues serves moral disengagement by formulating moral attitudes unilaterally, independent of underlying social causation and context.

Finally, moral agency, as it involves goal-directed behaviour, evokes accountable agency. The corresponding psychological question is how we are willing to assume responsibility for our actions and how people are not simply blind onlookers on their behaviour, as Bandura stated, but are capable of holding themselves and others accountable. Lastly, personal authenticity is viewed from an intersubjective perspective to how acts fit coherently into an overall life in order to self-support personal autonomy, e.g., in contrast to out-of-character behaviour. This entails the ability to vouch for oneself and one’s recognition by others to be willing and able to try. Authenticity concludes in the performative assertion that we are ultimately self-responsible for leading our life with others.

Autonomy is dependent on internal and external scaffolding to evolve. The internal scaffolding of private autonomy is composed by authenticity and moral agency, relating to a person’s intrinsic motivation, the external scaffolding is provided by available lifeworld resources and the rational construction of social domains. A holistic view of human agency requires to this argument to take all accounts into consideration: how we make sense of ourselves and of others, how we engage with others on a social level, how we construct shared lifeworld resources and how we hold each other accountable.

Human agency can be broadly conceptualised as the empowerment of freedom. This entails not only the freedom from oppression and constraint (as in a libertarian view) but also the freedom to create an order that offers equal opportunity to all (in terms of shared lifeworld resources), involving the self-directedness of life projects on individual account as well as the freedom to social inclusion and participation on a societal account.

An overview of an interdependent model of human agency is visualised in Figure 2.

human agency 3

Figure 2: An interdependent model of human agency. Private and social autonomy evolve in codependency via the institutionalisation of rational lifeworld resources. Practical agency and authentic identity develop as individualised aspects of socio-cognitive competence and self-rationalization. Moral agency and moral executive agency relate to the ability of self-regulation and self-correction.



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Why are computers still so dull? Where are the thinking machines we have been promised?


Above: Scene from the movie ‘Chappie’ (2015), directed by Neill Blomkamp

One of the most famous artificial intelligence (AI) entities in modern popular culture was arguably the HAL 9000 computer in the modern classic ‘2001- A Space Odyssey’; the insider joke being that when we shift all letters by one to the right in the alphabet, ‘HAL’ reads ‘IBM’. While HAL was creepy and evil, viciously attempting to kill the spaceship’s crew, we have in the meantime happily accepted the first wave of AI without much suspicion. Apple’s SIRI, Microsoft’s CORTANA and Facebook’s ‘M’ (the latter is still in development, but watch out for it) present the latest generation of commercialized AI in the form of friendly personal assistants. Who wouldn’t like to have a digital servant at their disposal?

CORTANA, for example, is courteous and friendly and diligently sends complex user profiling data back to her master, in this case Microsoft. Information-delivering loyalty is no different for the other mentioned models. AI comes with the programmed, built-in agenda to make profit for their owners, obviously. The only convincing solution to create a truly private assistant would be the development of local AI. Speech recognition and machine learning have made tremendous leaps in usability over the past decade. But why is the humble PC sitting on my desk still as uninspiring as a rock? Why don’t I believe anything that SIRI says? My personal and disappointing experience with AI came in the form of a car navigation system which had sent me in continuous loops around the city – with the effect of missing my flight. Then again, how do we define the ambiguous term of ‘intelligence’?

A well-known procedure to test ‘machine intelligence’ is the Turing Test, which has inspired generations of science fiction writers. The Turing Test was designed, to dispel a common myth, not as a test to prove of whether computers can or cannot think. The Turing test has been designed to instruct computer to lie (we may also say ‘to fake’ or ‘make-believe’) in such a manner that a human dialogue-partner cannot tell the difference of whether the conversation partner is human or machine. The Turing test is a test of performance, not a test to prove if or how machines are capable of mental states.

The claim that in the very near future computers will be capable of consciousness is one of the most fascinating public debates. When will we become obsolete? When will the Terminator knock at our door? Looking at my home computer, probably not anytime soon. Followers of ‘Transhumanism‘ and advocates of strong AI (which is the label for the idea of emerging self-conscious machines, or ‘h+’ in short), such as one of their most prominent speakers, Ray Kurzweil, cite two key arguments to why the end of humanity as we know it is inescapable and nigh. Stephen Hawking believes in the  inevitable advent of strong AI as well.

Pro Singularity: The Complexity-Threshold Argument and the Reverse-Engineering Argument

Firstly, it is argued that the performance of massive parallel computing increases exponentially. This is why, at some stage, consciousness may spring into existence once a certain threshold of complexity can be achieved. A single neuron cannot create consciousness, but billions of neurons can, which is the analogy being drawn. Secondly, by reverse-engineering the human brain, software can simulate precisely the same functions as neuronal networks. It is therefore anticipated to be only a matter of time when ‘singularity’, the advent of machine consciousness, arrives. If it does, so transhumanists conclude, biological intelligence becomes obsolete and we will eventually be replaced by the ‘next big thing’ of evolution, the ‘h+’. So much for cheerful prospects.

The Simulation-Reality Argument

One of the most ardent critics to this claim is Yale computer scientist David Gelernter. For Gelernter, to start with, simulations are not realities. We may, e.g., simulate the process of photosynthesis in a software-program while de facto no real photosynthesis has taken place. Computers, so Gelernter, are simply made out of the wrong stuff. No matter how sophisticated or complex a software-program simulates a process, it cannot transform actual carbon-dioxide into sugar and oxygen. We can simulate the weather, but nobody gets wet. We can simulate the brain, but no mind emerges.The underlying argument states that digital-, quantum- and biological modes of computation encompass fundamentally different types of causation and therefore cannot be substituted for one another. Consciousness, so Gelernter’s conclusion, is an emergent biological property of the brain.


Above: Big Brother is watching you. In Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’ (1968) this was the legendary HAL 9000.

The Mind-Brain Unity Argument

Brains develop organically over an entire lifetime. Our minds, as emergent properties of the brain, are intrinsically linked to the unique structure of neural pathways. The brain is not simply ‘hardware’, it is the physical embodiment of life-long leaning processes. This is why we cannot ‘upload’ a mind into a computer – we cannot separate the mind from its brain. For the same reason we cannot run several minds on the same brain – like we run several programs on a single computer. There is only one mind per brain and it is not portable.

The Psychological Goal-Setting Argument (Ajzen-Vygotsky Hypothesis)

Besides the obvious physical differences between brains and computers, cognitive differences could not be greater. AI developer Stephen Wolfram argues that the ability to set goals is an intrinsic human ability. Software can only execute those objectives that it was programmed and designed to. An AI cannot meaningfully set goals for itself or others. The reason for this, so Wolfram, is that goals are defined by our particulars—our particular biology, our particular psychology and particular cultural history. These are domains that machines have no access to or understanding of. One could also argue in reverse: because human life develops and grows within social scaffolding (a concept developed by psychologist Lev Vygotskythe founder of a theory of human cultural and bio-social development), deeply embedded in semantics, it is experienced as meaningful, which is a necessary prior condition to define goals and purpose. This would be the psychological extension to Wolfram’s argument.

Pepper insert

Above: The lovable  Japanese service-robot Pepper recognizes a person’s emotional states and is programmed to be kind, to dance and entertain. Is the idea of AI-driven robots as sweet, helpful assistants necessarily bad? Is is easy to see that the idea could be reversed (imagine military robots), giving weight to Isaac Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics’:  (1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. (2) A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. (3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Setting goals also depends on a person’s attitude and underlying subjective norms in order to form intentions. If we would expect machines to set goals, they would not only be required to understand socially-embedded semantics, but to be able to develop attitudes and a subjective model of desirable outcomes. This requirement has been extensively researched in the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) by Icek Ajzen. We may coin the hypothesized inability of an AI to set meaningful goals the ‘Ajzen-Vygotsky hypothesis‘. The bar is set even higher when we consider including not only individual planning, which could be arbitrary, but the ability to consensual and cooperative goal-setting.

Arguing for Weak AI instead

What machines unequivocally do get better at is pattern-recognition, such as the ability to analyze our habits (e.g., which type of products or restaurants we prefer), speech recognition or reading emotional states, such as by webcam facial analysis or by measuring the heartbeat of fitness-wristbands. AI is getting better at assembling and updating profiles of us and at responding to profile-changes accordingly, which is a novel, interactive quality of modern IT.

In our role as eager social network users, we continuously feed AI the required raw material, which is precious user data. Higher-level interaction based on refined profiles can be very useful. AI can, e.g., assist us via single voice command, rendering the use of multiple applications obsolete. AI can manage application for us in the background while we focus on the task at hand. On the darker side, AI may compare our profile and actions to those of others, without our knowledge and consent for strategic purpose, which represents a more dystopian possibility (or already-established NSA practice).

Machine Learning is not an Easy Task when there is Little Data Available and Environments are Complex – Another Argument for Weak AI

Psychologist Gary Marcus looks at the trustworthiness of AI for real-world applications. The problem with machine learning, according to Marcus, is that AI does not do well when relying on limited data sets or in complex situations within stochastic environments. For example, let’s think of self-driving cars. Driving styles of car drivers in Shanghai, Stuttgart, New York, Singapore, Rome or Calcutta are entirely different, making a standardized AI driving algorithm for self-driving cars not only impractical, but potentially life-endangering.


Above: Many car manufacturers work currently on developing self-driving cars. Here Mercedes’ concept study, the F 015, ‘Luxury in Motion’. Non-car companies such as Google and Apple have joined the race.

Machine Learning usually involves several data sets: a test-learning set, a training set and a (real-world) task set. Real-world scenarios do not provide conveniently pre-structured situations and data (such as, e.g., in chess or for recommendation systems), but they consist of an almost infinite number of situations. What when  it snows, or in heavy rain, or when an unexpected obstacle appears that has not been captured in the system’s database before? We don’t want a cleaning robot to bang against our furniture too often. Trusting a robot to take care of a child is a recipe for disaster to happen.

Marcus suggests developing cognitive psychological models for AI (e.g., by applying a variety of  ways how to recognize objects, not only by a single algorithm) to improve the accuracy of applied AI for specific contexts: If it looks like a dog, barks like a dog and behaves like a dog, the probability is high that we are indeed dealing with a dog and not a hyena or a goat, since a single low-pixel camera-input may deceive the AI.If programmers want AI to efficiently learn from sparse data sets, so Marcus, they should study how children learn, highly efficient, without much prior knowledge.

Despite what some people think, AI today is not anywhere near to what science-fiction suggests. For now, we better don’t base missile-guided systems on Deep Learning algorithms. 

Penrose deterministic but non-computational system

Above: Systems can be deterministic, but non-computable

The Non-Computational Pattern Argument

An intriguing argument against strong AI was formulated by Sir Roger Penrose, which can be reformulated in the context of mind-environment interaction. Penrose demonstrates in his lecture “Consciousness and the foundations of physics” how a system could be fully deterministic, ruled by the logic of cause and effect, and still be non-computational. It is possible to define a set of a simple mathematical rules for the creation of intersecting polyomino whose sequence is output as a unique, non-repeating and unpredictable pattern. There is no algorithm, so Penrose’ argument, that can describe the evolving pattern.

My immediate question was how this thought-experiment is any different from how we learn in the real world. Each new situation creates unique neuronal pathways in our brain. Since we assume, in addition, up- as well as downward-causation between brain (as the biological organ) and mind (the action executed by the organ), cognitive structures evolve (a) non-repetitive and (b) in self-restructuring manner.

Memories form by weaving subjective and objective information into the fabric of an autobiographical narrative. To claim, counter-factually, that narratives are still somehow ‘computed’ by an infinite number of interconnected internal and external processes, misses the point that there is no single algorithm, or program, that can account for a genesis of mind. The dismissal of this argument is by infinite regress.

The ‘Emotional Intelligence’ and Body Argument

Ray Kurzweil is well-aware that ‘intelligence’ cannot evolve in abstraction. This is why he emphasizes the importance of ’emotional intelligence’ for strong AI, to which there are at least two objections. The first is objection is that there cannot be emotions when there is no physical body to evoke them from, only software. Computational cognition lacks semantics without the information provided by an embedded, existential ontology, which implies existential vulnerability. The second objection is that the concept of emotional intelligence itself is a good example of deeply flawed pop-psychology. There is no compelling evidence in the field of psychology that emotional intelligence exists and could be validated as a scientific concept.


Above: The movie HER (2013), directed by Spike Jonze, explores the human need for companionship. The main protagonist, Theordore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with an AI, Samantha, who eventually outgrows the relationship with her human partner. As a body-less entity, she develops the ability to establish loving relationships with hundreds of users simultaneously and after an upgrade, a liking for other operating systems which are more similar to herself.

The Multimodal Argument – The Flexibility of Mind

What scientists seem to ignore in the debate about AI is that the human mind can switch between entirely different mental modes, some of which are likely to be more computational (like calculating costs and benefits) and some appear to be less – or not at all computational (such as reflecting on the meaning and quality of experiences and the value of specific goals). The human mind can effortlessly switch between subjective, objective and inter-subjective modes of operation and perspectives. We can see things from the inside out or from outside in. In mental simulation, we can reverse assumptions of causation, which is our reality check. As a result of this flexibility, we have developed a plethora of mind-states involving imagination, heuristics, the ability to hold and detect false beliefs or to distinguish between illusion and true states. It is because we make mistakes, and because of the experience how painful these mistakes can be, that mental self-monitoring and forethought derive meaning. The multimodal argument rests on the assumption that an entity is capable of conscious experience, bringing us to the qualia argument.

The Qualia Argument

In the Philosophy of Mind, qualia is conceptualized as our subjective, experiencing consciousness. We could argue with Daniel Kahneman that this includes concluding memories based on those experiences (the experiencing- versus the memorizing Self). In the Mary’s Room thought-experiment, philosopher Frank Jackson demonstrates the non-physical properties of mental states which philosopher David Chalmers calls the ‘hard problem of consciousness‘, our inability to explain how and why we have qualia.

The thought experiment is as follows: Mary lives her entire life in a room devoid of color—she has never directly experienced color in her entire life, though she is capable of it. Through black-and-white books and other media, she is educated on neuroscience to the point where she becomes an expert on the subject. Mary learns everything there is to know about the perception of color in the brain, as well as the physical facts about how light works in order to create the different color wavelengths. It can be said that Mary is aware of all physical facts about color and color perception.

After Mary’s studies on colour perception in the brain are complete, she exits the room and experiences, for the very first time, direct colour perception. She sees the colour red for the very first time, and learns something new about it — namely, what red looks like.

Jackson concluded that if physicalism is true, Mary ought to have gained total knowledge about color perception by examining the physical world. But since there is something she learns when she leaves the room, then physicalism must be false.

An AI may, in the same manner as Mary, collect information about human interaction and emotions by learning how to read pattern based on programmed algorithms, but it will never be able to experience them. This could be considered a philosophical argument against strong AI (or supporting weak AI to assist us by synthesizing and applying useful information). Linking the multimodal- to the qualia  argument states that if the realization of qualia, as a prerequisite, cannot be achieved by machine-learning, subsequent multimodal mental operations can also not be performed by AI.

Anthropomorphized Technology: AI, Gender and Social Attitudes

The question posed in a title by science fiction author Philip K. Dick ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ could be answered, from what has been elaborated, in many ways: (a) Yes, if androids have been programmed to do so (b) Not really, but Turing-wise their dreams seem convincingly real or (c) No, because machines are fundamentally incapable of sentience and self-cognition.

As a big fan of thought-experiments, I enjoyed movies such as ‘Chappie‘, ‘HER‘ or ‘Ex Machina’ thoroughly. A common theme running through all of the stories is the inability of an AI to truly connect to a human understanding of life. Another dominant theme, rather sadly, is the sexual and erotic exploitation of AI by men for the fulfillment of their fantasies (not elaborating on Japanese robot girls here, which is a cultural chapter by itself). It is unlikely that intelligent AI appears anytime soon when all that people can think of is satisfying their most primal urges by creating digital sex slaves, or creating collaborating criminals as elaborated in the movie ‘Chappie’ (2015).


Above: The sexualization of AI to pass the Turing test is a theme in the movie ‘Ex Machine’ (2015) by Alex Garland. Another, more humorous example would be the figure of Giggolo Joe, played by Jude Law,  a male prostitute ‘Mecha’ (robot) programmed with the ability to mimic love in Spielberg’s ‘AI’ (2001).

The two most commonly quoted arguments to why most AI are formatted female are that (a) lone male programmers who work on AI create de facto their virtual girlfriends as a compensatory reaction to their social deprivation and (b) men and women find a female AI equally less intimidating and more pleasant to interact with as compared to male AI. It is revealing how we anthropomorphize technology (as we have, e.g., anthopomorphized Gods), which is worthy of a separate inquiry.

Beyond the obsession with creating artificial intelligence, how about creating artificial kindness, artificial respect, artificial understanding or artificial empathy? We could distribute these qualities among those humans who dearly lack them.


As weak AI continues to develop, prospects for the advent of strong AI remain in the realm of science fiction. There are compelling arguments that singularity will not emerge anytime soon and may, in fact, never realize. One of the key arguments is that biological, digital and quantum systems are based on fundamentally different types of causation. They are not identical and require technological translation. AI can be understood, in this light, as the translation between human consciousness and information processing in the digital  and the quantum domain in order to serve human needs and goals.

Digital assistants and service robots have already become useful and self-optimizing extensions of our social life. As for all technology, AI is subject to potential abuse since the ethics of goal-setting , for the better or worse, remain still a unique quality of fallible programmers within the open domain of human imagination.