Ethical Intelligence

What is the cognitive toolkit that determines how consumers view companies? My research program approaches this question by focusing on what I call ethical intelligence, the cognitive tools that people need in order to coordinate in social life, as when using the same products, buying beers that will be enjoyed by others at a party, and conforming to community standards or being viewed as popular. Broadly, I study:


1 How ethical intelligence influences consumer attitudes towards companies. 

2 In turn, how companies can market in ways that are sensitive to these moral buttons. 

I study this relationship through specific case studies, such as the ethics of autonomous machines, ascriptions of charitability, and corporate essentialism. Studying ethical intelligence can demystify the high-level thoughts and intuitions (aka 'common sense') that make humans unique, engender stable institutions in which people coordinate for the greater good, and help us live better lives. I approach these questions using various methods from experimental psychology and machine learning, while drawing on theoretical insights from game theory, evolutionary biology, and philosophy.

I have consulted with several companies, including: Perceptive Automata, Motional, Swiss Re, May Mobility, Koa Health, Replika AI, and Brynwood Partners. 


Ethics of Autonomous Machines

How do we create complex autonomous systems that have 'ethically acceptable' behavior? The current work considers the case study of autonomous vehicles--the first truly autonomous systems to operate in populated environments. Ethics is relevant to how they should be programmed, regulated, and perceived.

Common Knowledge and Recursive Mentalizing

Most work in psychology has studied the representation of other's beliefs about the world, aka theory of mind. My collaborators and I have investigated how representations of knowledge -- including knowledge that others have about our own beliefs (e.g., you know X, I know that you know X), and common knowledge (you know X, I know that you know X, you know that I know that you know X, ad infinitum) -- affect diverse social phenomena such as the bystander effect and perceptions of charitability. We propose that -- rather than being represented as an explicit, multiply nested proposition -- common knowledge may be a distinctive cognitive state, corresponding to the sense that something is public or "out there".

The True Self and Moral Essentialism

Representations of and beliefs about the concept of “a self” vary across cultures, perspectives (first vs. third), and individuals. Yet my collaborators and I have found evidence suggesting that people exhibit a robust, invariant tendency to believe that deep inside every individual there is a “good true self” calling them to behave in a morally virtuous manner. We propose that this belief arises from a general cognitive tendency known as psychological essentialism.

Models of Moral Judgment

How do people make moral judgments? The present work explores how moral judgment is influenced by perceptual and teleological factors, as well as how moral judgment affects such factors in turn.


Curiosity-Driven Social Learning

This work explores the idea that complex behaviors, like animate attention, can be explained by the interaction of a world model (which predicts future states of the world) and an intrinsically-motivated self model (which motivates the agent to spend time predicting parts of the world with certain features). In particular, we find that paying attention to aspects of the environment where one is continuing to learn new information (which we term progress curiosity) is a particularly powerful way to give rise to human-like behaviors like animate attention, without the need for built-in modules or hand-written rules. This work utilizes a 3D, photorealistic environment that we created for measuring artificial and human agents-- either while they wear mobile eye trackers or virtual reality goggles. We also run setups in which the displays are conveyed using real robots.


Other Papers

  • DeScioli, P., Karpoff, R., & De Freitas, J. (2017). Ownership dilemmas: The case of finders versus  landowners. Cognitive Science, 41(S3), 502–522.

  • De Freitas, J., Liverence, B., & Scholl, B. J. (2014). Attentional rhythm: A temporal analogue of object-based attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(1), 71–76.

  • Prinzing, M., De Freitas, J., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2021). The ordinary concept of a meaningful life: The role of subjective and objective factors in attributions of meaning. Journal of Positive Psychology.  

  • De Freitas, J., Myers, N. E., & Nobre, A. C. (2016). Tracking the changing feature of a moving object. Journal of Vision, 16(3), 1–21.

  • Tarhan, L., De Freitas, J., & Konkle, T. Behavioral and neural representations en route to intuitive action understanding. Neuropsychologia

  • Paul, L., Ullman, T., De Freitas, J., Tenenbaum, J. A minimal computational self. Under review