Remembering Prof. Howard Barrows: Notes on Problem-based Learning and the Schools of the Future

hbarrowsMe: “Howard, can I ask you a more general, philosophical question? Considering all your pioneering work in Problem-based Learning, how would you imagine the school of the future?”

Howard Barrows: “To start with, there would be no subjects. There would be no isolated classes for students such as geography, chemistry, accounting, history and so on.”

Me: “How can this work? What is the point of abandoning specialised subjects?”

Howard Barrows: “It is the designed learning outcomes that drive the learning process and in real-world problems, these outcomes are interconnected. As an example, you come from design. Supposed your students need to produce a TV program, then this is not only about holding a camera and putting it on air, but it is also about casting, accounting, clearing copyright, the ethics of journalism, buying airtime, mastering technology… a whole bunch of learning issues and they are all related. “

Me: “The school of the future would offer highly-integrated projects instead of traditional classes?”

Howard Barrows: “Yes. We would offer complex interdisciplinary projects that already include all the outcomes that traditional subjects intent to convey. Students develop knowledge and skills by achieving the designed learning outcomes. By presenting outcomes in the form of real-world problems, learning becomes more meaningful and relevant to students.”

Hallmarks of Constructivist Active Learning Pedagogy

These were not Howard Barrows exact words as this was not a recorded interview. But it is a truthful account of one of our last conversations during a teacher training workshop in Hamilton, Canada many years ago. Currently, almost two decades, later, Finland started abandoning traditional school subjects in favour of a curriculum reform under the title ‘Phenomenon-Based Learning’, which has much in common with Problem-based Learning (PBL) beyond sharing the same acronym.

(1) Problem-based Learning and Phenomenon-based Learning follow both a constructivist educational philosophy which refers to the idea that knowledge and the meaning of knowledge acquisition are actively created in the learner’s mind. The focus is on students’ critical evaluation of their learning, rather than passively internalising content. (2) Learning is contextual. A real-world problem or phenomenon such as climate change is contextual and requires considering different aspects and perspectives, such as e.g., the quality of people’s lives, mathematics, geography, meteorology, politics and policies, social psychology such as changing consumer behaviour and so on. This is different from most academic problems. Less complex and practical problems such as e.g., running a cafeteria would be another example. Each type of problem-solving or investigation into phenomena requires different kinds of competencies, each problem entails a distinct set of corresponding learning outcomes.

However, not all subjects can or should be replaced, such as e.g., languages, as they are by themselves meta-contextual in nature. Other subjects such as mathematics and music will e.g., still be taught in Finland which is adopting Phenomenon-based Learning. As Prof. Pasi Sahlberg of Harvard University comments “Finland’s National Curriculum Framework is a loose common standard that steers curriculum planning at the level of the municipalities and their schools. It leaves educators freedom to find the best ways to offer good teaching and learning to all children. Therefore, practices vary from school to school and are often customised to local needs and situations.”

(3) The combination of social immersion with autonomous motivation is the key to sustainable, self-directed learning within social contexts. Given the complex nature of most problems, problem-solving is ideally conducted within cooperating teams, rather than competing groups.

(4) The tutorial group structure of PBL avoids oversimplification that easily occurs on an individual level, but it also prevents ‘groupthink’ by encouraging open inquiry and critical, diverse thinking among group members. By discouraging individual power positions, social loafing but encouraging active participation, open inquiry, and consensus based on the better argument, tutorial groups resemble an approximation to what the social philosopher Jürgen Habermas called in his early philosophy ‘ideal speech situation’, which he later concluded as Discourse Ethics. Habermas’ doctrines almost read like a PBL tutorial guide, e.g., ‘Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse‘ (principle of social inclusion) or ‘Everyone is allowed to question any assertion at any time’ (principle of open inquiry).  In classroom practice, real world problems appear more meaningful to students as compared to decontextualized abstract tasks and thus support their intrinsic motivation.

pbl2Image above: Outline of the core PBL process for a tutorial group. It involves the stages of the group setting, problem identification, idea generation, the identification of learning issues, self-directed learning (research), research review, solutions development and the final self-assessment of learners of their individual and social roles. Educators such as Donald Woods have diversified the process structure for numerous faculties.

(5) In constructivist educational philosophy, reality is based on multiple representations allowing for multiple and multi-faceted solutions to emerge – unlike the single ‘model answer’ in traditional education. During the research and development phase, students become aware of different conceptual and practical approaches. Final solutions are the result of reiterative rounds of research and synthesis by the team, they are not spontaneous assumptions based on somebody’s pet ideas.

When we talked about grades, a hallmark of traditional education, Howard Barrows put forward a rhetorical question “If a pilot is taking 250 passengers from Frankfurt to New York, and you ask him how he feels, what would you think if he answers ‘Like a C minus’?” If an industry representative would ask me which of my students is able to do the job – wouldn’t it be ideal if I can honestly answer ‘All of them, all of my students can perform the job well’? Besides, what does a grade tell us? For example, if a student has obtained a ‘B’ in web-design, is this because she could handle the backend well, or the graphical user interface, or the integration into a database or any combination thereof? Does a grade tell us how a student was performing as a team member, a problem-solver or as a researcher? Traditional assessment is disappointingly un-informing when we take the requirements of a 21st-century workplace as a criterion. As compared to a mere summative assessment, assessment rubrics and formative assessment procedures have undoubtedly narrowed the gap to a fairer and more efficient evaluation, but social skills and research skills are rarely part of academic appraisals.

What is a ‘Problem’ and what is its function?

My colleagues and Howard also had intense discussions about the term of a ‘problem’. Doesn’t ‘problem’ sound too negative? We rarely perceive problems as something we would wish for. Problems can be of high and low complexity and they come in many forms, shapes, and sizes. Some problems might not be considered problems per se, but challenges. A product that works perfectly well without problems may just need an update to keep up with the times, or people might want to discuss openly competing models of desired social futures. More than often, we pose general questions even when we do not face an immediate functional problem, e.g., how do we conceptualise social fairness? What makes a happy childhood? What do we wish for the future of our communities? What is our political utopia?

At the end, the terminus ‘PBL’ was simply too well established in academic discourse so that alternate proposals, such as e.g., ‘Challenge-based Learning’ never gained popularity. For now, it needs to suffice that we talk about ‘problems’ in an extended sense meaning that issues can be of quantitative as well as qualitative nature. In a Kantian understanding, problems and system design issues can represent instrumental as well as non-instrumental (pure- intrinsic) types of rationality. In each case, it is the problem or issue at hand that drives the learning process, not the lecturer or teacher. From a research perspective, theoretical frameworks can complement PBL (by e.g., integrating Critical Theory, Social Conflict Theory, minority group perspectives, Social and Ecological Sustainability, Prospect Theory etc.), depending on the decided research approach.

In the light of terminology, ‘Phenomenon-based Learning’ as in the Finish example represents a limited signifier as well. Phenomenology typically refers to the particular structure of consciousness from a subjective, first-person view. It is a good term in a sense that it emphasises the active construction of new knowledge by a learner, but it neglects one of the key principles of constructivism which is the construction of knowledge with others in social context. It is in intersubjectivity, the reciprocal exchange of perspectives, where learning takes place. Related psychologists in support of constructivist learning are Albert Bandura (Social Cognitive Theory) and Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky contributed an interesting perspective to learning by differentiating areas where a student can learn unaided, where a student can learn with assistance and a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) where learning takes place in terms of a coherent social scaffolding for knowledge creation.

Unlike traditional education, PBL questions its own assertions by promoting metacognitive skills in students’ reasoning and epistemology. A probing tutor asks for the grounds and justifications of group members’ reasoning and asks how group members truly know what they assume to know. In academia worldwide, PBL has established itself as a sound pedagogy to address the deep social, economic, ecological and technological challenges of the 21st century.

Extraordinarily great pedagogy requires extraordinary effort: What is the price to pay?

Since much of what has been claimed about constructivist learning may sound too good to be true, the question arises if I had ever experienced any drawbacks. From my experience, there are critical institutional and individual obstacles to overcome. Constructivist pedagogy requires substantial training of staff and it demands a likewise substantial commitment by the education provider to promote student-centered pedagogy. Policy implementation should be conducted across the institution based on a voluntary buy-in. It requires support by consultants and needs a clear normative endorsement by management. In summary, the implementation of constructivist learning pedagogies is a huge collaborative effort.

On teacher level, resistance to new modes of curriculum delivery is rather common. Teachers that have been delivering classes by rote learning their entire careers often feel reluctant to let go of their cosy classroom authority. Many traditional teachers are not ready to give up their role as classroom authority and to embrace the more meaningful role as a facilitator of students’ learning. They feel that PBL is depriving them of their privileged status. To them, the classroom is their private kingdom. On the other hand, each school or college has some teachers that are motivated to try out learner-centered pedagogy. There are opportunities for supporting and recognising such teachers, to offer them the opportunity to become role-models for others, to organise’best practices’ sharing sessions and to publicise student feedback to persuade those that are resistant to change. On a university level, empirical studies might convince more scientifically oriented staff.

Another issue to resolve is the topic of prior knowledge. How much of prior (mostly conceptional) knowledge should be taught to students as a professional ‘body of knowledge’before they can embark on PBL? Especially students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds deserve to start on the same level as their better-off peers. Related academic discussions contributed new ideas to the qualifying issue of prior knowledge such as e.g., initial lectures on common underlying concepts, ‘lectures on demand’ (by external experts, not necessarily lecturers) or ‘flipped classrooms‘, among many others. During policy implementation, it is critical to carefully balance the dissemination of prior knowledge with classroom learning expectations and to explain to all academic staff how both aspects complement each other fairly.

As a memorable experience, I remember my very first PBL class at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore. Long after the class ended, I had to chase students literally out of the classroom (they ran overtime and the room was booked for other students) as they were still passionately immersed in discussions. I asked myself when was the last time that I saw students truly thrive this way. International studies have confirmed PBL as a superior and more efficient pedagogy as compared to traditional teaching, but practitioners and consultants are in rare supply.

Howard Barrows died in March 2011. To me, he was one of the most influential mentors, reformers, and innovators in contemporary educational philosophy. The list of groundbreaking innovations that PBL brought to the most diverse fields of education is incredible. It ranges from establishing students’ personal responsibility for their learning to learning in structured tutorial groups, employing simulated clients (today we also use computer simulations) and basing curricula on real-world multidisciplinary issues. Most importantly, Howard Barrows’ concept of PBL contributed to empowering learners of all ages by taking an active role in knowledge construction. PBL brought back meaning to students’ learning by introducing process-based solutions development for real-world applications. To conclude with a perspective of Albert Bandura, people are not merely onlookers of their behaviour, but proactive subjects capable of creating desired futures.



Barrows, H. S. (1971). Simulated patients (programmed patients): The development and use of a new technique in medical education. Springfield, Ill: Thomas.

Barrows, H. S., & Tamblyn, R. M. (1980). Problem-based learning: An approach to medical education. New York: Springer Pub. Co.

Barrows, H. S. (1992). The tutorial process. Springfield, Ill: Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

Barrows, H. S. (1996), Problem-based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1996: 3–12. doi:10.1002/tl.37219966804

Barrows, H. S., & Wee, K. N. L. (2007). Principles & practice of aPBL. Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall.


Why it is Time to Retire Bloom’s Taxonomy


Picture above: 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 includes the cognitive- (knowledge-based), affective- (emotive-based) and psychomotor (action-based) domain which explains its intuitive appeal to many teachers. We do not only learn with our heads but also by our actions and emotional experiences that reinforce cognitive processes and give them meaning.

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

The most commonly voiced out critique to the taxonomy is that thinking does not operate within hierarchies, but that cognition and affect are neurologically and phenomenologically distributed processes that can assume a plethora of possible configurations. Additional reasons that cast doubt on the usefulness of Bloom’s taxonomy as a pedagogical concept shall be outlined in the following.

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 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 of Bloom’s taxonomy that are validated by research are factual-conceptual knowledge (described in modern pedagogy as ‘prior knowledge’) as well as procedural- and metacognitive knowledge. 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, the reflective thinking related to mental content ‘due to me’, or social metacognition, the reflective thinking related to thinking about mental content ‘due to others’ (Briñol & DeMarree, 2012; Kim et al., 2013).

The question remains if lower- and higher-order thinking skills exist as such. A closer look questions this assumption. Some examples: The hierarchy of Bloom’s cognitive domains is broken in the case of (a) a problem-solving scenario where a solid comprehension of basic facts may outweigh an evaluation that is based on biased perceptions (besides, where does comprehension stop and where does evaluation start since both processes work reciprocally) or (b), where a concept is tested for the robustness of its causal and conditional relations (analysis) in order to obtain approval (final evaluation). In such case, analysis and evaluation are interdependent and one cannot be confirmed without acknowledging changes in the other.

If e.g., a situation is evaluated as problematic then this stimulates analysis on how to deal with it, entailing a subsequent evaluation of potential solutions. Even if a final solution is decided this leads to a retrospective analysis and check on the efficacy of the applied solution – and so on and so forth. There is, strictly speaking,  neither a clear-cut hierarchy nor sequence of cognitive processes since we are dealing with interactive, mutually dependent processes: no analysis without prior evaluation, no evaluation without prior analysis.

Creation, to comment on the revised taxonomy (Anderson et al., 2001), does also not necessarily constitute a higher order domain when underlying data analysis and conclusions of a project are faulty. Without proper research, creations remain guesses and assumptions. More than often, people try to promote their pet ideas and care little about thorough procedural solutions development. How do we determine the value of creation? In research, deductive and inductive reasoning are interdependent: we cannot blindly analyze things without an initial sense of intuitive comprehension (such as notions of purpose) and we cannot comprehend things without some sort of prior evaluation. Inductive-empirical and deductive-theoretical inferences relate reciprocally. The more tightly deductive and inductive inferences relate, the smaller the margin for error in research and development. For this reason, assuming a static hierarchy of domains like in Bloom’s Taxonomy is not helpful.

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 social relation of persons in the creation of knowledge. This includes crucial aspects such as the motivation to acquire knowledge, reiterative and diverse cycles of research, dynamics of open inquiry, the validation of related arguments or the ongoing refinement of concepts within teams. Bloom’s Taxonomy tells us nothing about the role that learners play in knowledge acquisition and creation, including a learner’s intellectual values, the psychological effects of learning experiences, individual differences in cognitive processing, or the communicative processes involved in research and development. Bloom’s Taxonomy does not explain how people collaboratively 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?’ The answers to such complex, but critical questions cannot be concluded by attributing general categories (e.g., ‘to analyze’, ‘to synthesize’), but via open deliberation among multiple learners.  Assessment cannot be based on ticking boxes of which cognitive domains have been covered by a student, but by assessing the quality of underlying reasoning.

2.3. Practical Disadvantages and Methodological Flaws

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 domain identifiers (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 such as in group discussions and (c) the identification of cognitive processes within an individual learner makes little sense. Instead, a student project can be structured according to logical stages, such as problem identification, problem reframing, identification of learning issues, self-directed research, research review, solutions development, solutions presentation and team/ self- review.

Bloom listed specific ‘action verbs’ that he claims are identifiers for the main cognitive domains, but it is easy to demonstrate that such simple correlations using ‘action verbs’ are misleading. For example, if we take Bloom’s domain of ‘evaluation’ in isolation and only look at action verbs, 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 power of interconnected, reflected and articulated reasons that drive cognition, 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 reason 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 for the sake of ticking boxes. What matters is 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, 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 critical to learning.
  • 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
  • Thinking processes are not based on strict sequences or hierarchies. Depending on the kind of problem at hand and its complexity, learners structure affective, cognitive and metacognitive processes accordingly
  • The obsession with individual cognitive skills and processes is often exercised 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 and studies investigating intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation or cognitive construction had not yet appeared on the horizon when Bloom 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:

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.

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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Bandura, A. (2007). Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement. International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, Vol. 2, No. 1 , 2007

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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.

Towards a Sustainable Society: Best Student Entries of Fall 2015 (Multimedia & Visual Communication Research)

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(from left to right: Maneerat Sartwattanarod, Vicky Nway, Lucasz Saczek)

In the course of their undergraduate thesis for the Bachelor of Design at Raffles International College in Bangkok, I have had the pleasure to coach and mentor a particularly gifted group of students. To gain insight into their work for the public I have conducted interviews with Maneerat Sartwattanarod (Thailand), who has developed pharmaceutical packaging design for the visually impaired, Matthew Spaulding (USA), who has explored entomophagy, the innovative and original idea of commercializing insects as food, and Lukasz Saczek (Poland), who has investigated the problems of orphanages in Thailand. Special mention goes to Vicky Nway (Myanmar) who has documented the dynamics behind productive and dignified ageing. Credit goes also to my colleague Pirawan Numdokmai for coaching our Visual Communication Design students.

INTERVIEW 1: Maneerat Sartwattanarod (Gigg): The ‘Braille Pill’ Project – Developing Braille-based medical packaging

Developing medical packaging for the visually impaired is a very specific topic. What got you started?

Gigg: I got the idea from talking to people during the “Dialogue in the Dark”- exhibition [a government organization], so I asked myself how I can design something useful for blind people since design must be useful and accessible to everybody. When I interviewed blind people, they mentioned that they are not looking for technology based on a smart phone since it is hard to use and to understand, especially for elderly blind people. I wanted to develop a design which can be used in daily life and which is relevant to this group. So, as a designer, I came up with the idea of a pharmaceutical packaging design. I wanted to re-design medical packaging and medical labels. It had to be easy to understand and user-friendly. My project hypothesis states that it is possible to design a Braille-based packaging design that allows visually impaired people to read medication information as accurately and almost as efficient as non-impaired people. I thought it would be excellent if I could really create this and if visually impaired people could use my packaging design in Thailand. It was a big challenge for me.

You have developed the design in cooperation with visually impaired and blind people. Can you tell us a little more about your approach?

Gigg: Yes, first I went to the foundation of the blind in Nakornpathom and I conducted and recorded qualitative interviews. Many blind people told me that they cannot imagine shapes, even if non- impaired people try to explain them. Blind people don’t read symbols, but they understand Braille code for Thai language. The sensation of touch is the most important. After interviewing, I started my research. I created the first prototypes of my packaging design which included a Paracetamol box, as well as the pharmaceutical label for the clinic and hospital. The design should assist blind people to live their life independently and as easy as non-visually impaired people.


Braille-based packaging design, (click to enlarge)

How did you test the design? Can you elaborate on your methodology?

Gigg: My prototype packaging design was tested by 40 participants, 20 visually impaired people and 20 non-visually impaired people. As methodology I used an independent sample T-test. During the test, the participants followed a specifically-designed question protocol asking, e.g. to identify the name of the medicine. Other questions were, ‘How can you identify the packaging?’, ‘What’s the expiry date?’ … and so on.  I recorded the participants’ reaction time for reading the packaging.  At the end all data was translated into statistics. Visually impaired participants spent, as anticipated, more time to read and understand the medical label on the packaging than the non-visually impaired participants. But the times to read the packaging information were statistically acceptable as compared to the typical population. The medical information on the Paracetamol box prototype was clear to decipher and the Braille letters were, according to participants, properly spaced. At the end of the trial, visually impaired participants were highly satisfied with the packaging design and they found the additional medical label very helpful.


Thesis structure (click to enlarge)

How has the project influenced or changed you on a personal and philosophical level?

Gigg: The project influenced my personal and philosophical level because when I design something, I generally design things for people who can see my design, but good design must be able to be used by everybody. Design is not exclusive to specific groups. This project made me change my design perspective. Design does not need to be made of high technology or fabricated by complex machines. Such approaches are useless if the cost of design becomes too expensive. Design can be simple, but it must be helpful and accessible to everybody in society.



INTERVIEW 2: Matthew Spaulding: Commercializing Entomophagy (Eating Insects)

To promote eating insects on a commercial scale is a rather unusual project. How did you come up with the idea?

Matthew : Unfortunately, the idea didn’t come easy to me. I was already several weeks into the research of a different topic that I wasn’t too enthusiastic about. Even though I was several weeks into my research, I was looking to change the topic. That’s when I decided to watch a couple of TED-Talk videos, something that I like to do in my spare time. One of the videos that I clicked on had to do with the subject of entomophagy, the practice of consuming insects as food. The presentation was truly eye-opening. After watching the presentation, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I became fascinated with the idea of entomophagy and how it could possibly be introduced to Western consumers on a commercial scale.

Many people may feel disgusted by the idea of eating insects in their daily diet. What is your answer to this objection?

Matthew : Disgust and the psychology behind it is another fascinating subject all by itself. Through the course of my project, I made sure to look into how disgust works and how it could be managed so that insects could be more palatable to Western consumers. Disgust, a natural reaction that once functioned as a mechanism of survival and defense against possible pathogens and disease, present in bad sources of food, has evolved into an emotion. The development of disgust happens at a very young age, usually right around the time children start using the term “cooties,” [a body louse, or a children’s term for an imaginary germ or repellent quality transmitted by obnoxious or slovenly people] which is a term that elicits the emotion of disgust. Because of this original development, this emotion is subject to being morphed and formed through social and cultural pressure, which means that it is possible to change the perception of disgust relating to certain items. In this case, we would need to change the perception of insects.


Since large companies and organizations have influence over the culture of which it belongs to, it is important to take the idea of entomophagy and channel it through these entities. Introducing entomophagy to Western people would require careful advertising and educational campaigns. The design of these campaigns is important because it needs to be demonstrated how appetizing and attractive insect based foods can be.

Currently, the sight of an insect often elicits the emotion of disgust; so the early stages of introducing entomophagy to Western cultures would most likely require insect based product to be processed into powders and pastes so that there are no discernible shapes of the insects are present. Mitigating the emotion of disgust in the introduction of entomophagy to Western cultures is tricky, but not impossible!

On a global scale – can design save the world? How does your project tie into this intuition?

Matthew : Wow, I think saving the world is a tall order, but I think that design definitely contributes. In my case, I think my project would have many benefits if it were implemented. There are many issues that entomophagy would combat. By the year, 2050, it is estimated that the world will have a population of nine billion people. Supporting those kinds of numbers with our current agricultural system is nearly impossible. Entomophagy would help ease the stress of feeding the rising population. Also, it is said that agriculture is the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Traditional livestock requires vast amounts of land and resources, and it often contaminates water resources. Insects, on the other hand require very little land and resources and greenhouse gas emissions are minimal. Here is an excellent illustration of what I’m talking about:

To produce one pound of beef, 1,799 gallons of water is required. To produce one pound of crickets, only one gallon of water is required.

On top of that, crickets have half the fat and a third more protein than beef and a ton more micro nutrients. If insect based products were commercially available, access to healthy and cheap food would be more of a reality. Although it is highly improbable that westerners will trade their steaks for an all cricket diet, treating insects as a supplemental food item and easing the overwhelming dependence on traditional livestock would be a great step in reducing the environmental impact of agriculture.

What have you learned personally and on a philosophical level during this project?

Matthew : Through this project, I think I’ve come to the realization that I get a lot of satisfaction out of producing a concept that could possibly help to make the world a better place. I think with some tweaking, this would be something that I would like to pursue and push for. I’ve always had a problem of nailing down exactly what I wanted to do within the world of design, and perhaps I’ve found something here in this project.


website LucaszINTERVIEW 3: Lukasz Saczek: Understanding orphanages, their underlying psychological- and human rights issues

Orphans are a highly vulnerable population. What do you think are the most misunderstood issues when people hear about orphanages in the media?

When people hear about orphanages they often have this picture in their heads of poor, sad kids who are wearing scruffy clothes and are usually malnourished. I think many Western people picture orphanages this way after seeing dramatic media footage, such as from the ex-Eastern Bloc, particularly Romania. And the biggest misconception is that people think that these kids don’t have parents. We think that they have no family, no relatives to take care of them and that’s why they are placed in an orphanage. According to the UN, 80% of children in such institutions are not actually orphans. Many children are placed in orphanages because their parents can’t afford to take care of them. Many of these children come, for example, from minority tribes, some are disabled. An estimated 374,000 children worldwide have been left without parental care due to HIV/AIDS, which are 34,8% of all orphans – and this number has been growing rapidly in the last decade.

Sometimes parents are even paid for placing their children in an orphanage. There is a great documentary available from Al Jazeera titled “Cambodian Orphan Business” that describes such criminal misuse. Some private orphanages are, sadly enough, a tourist attractions and children in need attract more tourists. Placing non-orphan children in orphanages is often supported by local officials. Instead of investigating the problem and checking why parents can’t take care of their child, officials look for the fastest and easiest solution.

Tell us about your experiences with orphanages in Thailand. Which were the most encouraging but also the most troubling findings that you have encountered?

Children have basic needs provided the least. What is troubling is that government-run orphanages actually encourage short-term visits by volunteers.  There is no awareness of the psychological damage being done to children forced to form an endless series of new relationships with strangers. Part-time volunteers just come and go. Pop in, play with kids, donate, they don’t see a problem…

What can we do to avoid harm and how can we do some good when it comes to orphans?

To avoid harm is quite simple: Don’t volunteer unless you are professionally qualified to work with children. If you want to do some good, contact a reputable childcare organization and ask how you can help. When you travel and come by an orphanage, buy products from local communities because that’s probably the easiest way of support.

UNICEF recommends that tourists should refrain from visiting and donating to residential care facilities simply because ‘Hug an orphan holidays‘ create a never-ending cycle of abandonment. An average price for a one-week volunteering experience in a private orphanage in Thailand is around 400 USD and the majority of these institutions do not even require a criminal background check.

The government has a key role to play when speaking about orphans. The private childcare sector is a grey area and it urgently needs government regulation because there are too many business and non-child orientated organizations out there that take advantage of the non-regulated environment. In the north of Thailand there are about 500 private orphanages! The government must also grant equal rights to minority tribes and stop treating them as a tourist attraction. As for society, definitely the biggest challenge is accepting children with HIV/AIDS.


Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 10.01.55INTERVIEW 4: Vicky Nway: Dignified and Productive Ageing (Video Documentary) 

Ageing societies are a worldwide phenomenon. Which aspects of an ageing society were most interesting in your investigation and why?

Vicky: In my research I focus specifically on Thailand and the Thai elderly. I was hoping to find out what it is like to grow old in this culture. First of all, older people are treated with great respect in my home-country, Myanmar, as well as in Thailand. Younger people like me usually pay respects to the elderly by providing for them in terms of physical goods and financially. This is known as a polite manner, but I think it undermines the ability, dignity and pride of the elderly since they start depending, knowingly or unknowingly, on the younger generation. What got me thinking was the difference between autonomous, individualized Western cultures and the interdependent Thai culture. I wanted to focus on how elderly people can grow old successfully without having to rely on anybody else and to encourage the idea that elderly people have similar abilities as compared to younger people.

Can you explain what you mean by dignified and productive ageing? 

Vicky: A dignified life means that as a person grows older, he or she is able to enjoy late adulthood without worries, unhappiness or depression. It means that older people are happy with what they have achieved in their life and that they are optimistic about growing old. It also means that they are enthusiastic to spend their daily lives with their hobbies and what they intrinsically love to do in order to keep active and healthy. Productive ageing means that as a person grows older, he or she is able to spend time wisely and keeps on contributing to society. The elderly can become in fact a country’s human resource once they stay connected to their communities, be it through their knowledge, personality or their experience.

unnamedWhich were your key-findings during your research?

Vicky: In my research, I interviewed older people who are still working. Some of them have to keep on working after the official retirement age since they have to support themselves or their family. Some of them have chosen to work way into their 70s or 80s because working brings out strong personalities and self-direction. I also found a fun Karaoke event for  elderly people who have retired. People in such small social worlds seem to enjoy dignified lives by spending their free time following their hobbies with friends. In conclusion, I found that there are a lot of Thai elderly who are still working to support themselves.

How has the project influenced or changed you on a personal and philosophical level?

Vicky: I am surprised to see Thai elderly that have strong, positive perspectives about growing old and living dignified and productive lives. Previously, I had always assumed that the majority of Thai elderly depend on their families. Most of the people I interviewed are willing to work and to support themselves. They are proud to make a living on their own. After finishing my research, I realized that even though Thailand and Myanmar share very similar traditions and cultures, the elderly in Thailand seem more optimistic about being old as compared to the elderly population in Myanmar.

Supportive social networks that include friends, family and peer groups were particularly important. Social networks provide a person with a relief to know that friends or family are there for them when they need them. Supportive social networks contribute to psychological well-being by providing a sense of belonging. Spending time with others prevents the experience of loneliness and depression. Besides, to be there for others contributes to an increased sense of self-worth.