Social Perception

The human mind can only process and store a limited amount of information, yet it is capable of astounding social feats, such as keeping track of multiple moral reputations, coordinating in social life, and recognizing socially-relevant information in the blink of an eye. This suggests that it employs efficient strategies to manage its limited resources. My research is aimed at understanding how the mind optimizes the use of its constrained resources to solve distinctly social tasks involving understanding the self, others, and coordinating social interactions. My projects study the different ways it does this: by using heuristics that approximate reality, including psychological essentialism and a shorthand representation of common knowledge; by using abstract inferences from the visual system; and by deploying learning rules which end up biasing it toward animate agents in any environment. To study these topics, I draw on both methods from social psychology like survey studies and economic games, and methods from perceptual science like behavioral psychophysics, eye tracking, and artificial neural networks.

Research Topics

The true self

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.


Common knowledge, coordination, and strategic mentalizing in social life

My collaborators and I have investigated how representations of knowledge -- including shared knowledge (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". 


Visual inferences for moral cognition

How are people able to rapidly make social inferences about the visual world around them? We find that it may be because the visual system rapidly makes surprisingly abstract inferences, e.g., about causality and agency, which can immediately inform social cognition without need for further cognitive computation.

  • De Freitas, J., & Alvarez, G. A. (2018). Your visual system provides all the information you need to make moral judgments about generic visual events. Cognition, 178, 133–146. 

  • De Freitas, J., Hafri, A., Alvarez, G. A., Yamins, D. L. K. From pixels to moral judgment: Extracting morally-relevant information in minds and machines. Journal of Vision

  • De Freitas, J., Anthony, S. E., & Alvarez, G. A. Doubting driverless dilemmas. PsyArXiv. 

The curious origins of animate attention

Humans naturally pay attention to other animate agents in their environment, a prosocial behavior that has been documented as early as a few weeks. What internal mechanisms give rise to this behavior? A standard hypothesis is that the human brain has a built-in module that specifically detects animacy from visual input. Yet we find evidence that animate attention naturally arises from a more general process of curiosity driven learning. This work draws on insights about object and feature-based tracking. 

  • De Freitas, J., Kim, K. H., Haber, N., Conwell, C., Alvarez, G. A., & Yamins, D. L. K. Intrinsic curiosity may give rise to animate attention. Journal of Vision

  • Kim, K. H., Sano, M., Haber, N., De Freitas, J., & Yamins, D. L. K. (2019). Learning to attend with progress-based intrinsic motivation. Under review. 

  • 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. 

  • 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. 

Moral judgment

These papers demonstrate (i) the pervasive impact of morality on non-moral intuitions and language, (ii) that moral judgments follow the 'teleological stance', not just the 'intentional stance', and (iii) that people have surprisingly systematic intuitions about how to resolve certain ownership disputes, with implications for the law. 


Other papers

  • De Freitas, J., Anthony, S. E., Censi, A., Frazzoli, E., & Alvarez, G. A. (2019). Doubting driverless dilemmas: Towards falsifiable tests for autonomous systems. PsyArXiv. 

  • De Freitas, J., Rips, L., & Alvarez, G. A. (2019). The limit of personal identity. PsyArXiv.

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