Personal identity, self-projection, ownership, and psychological 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.


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". 


Object-based tracking, intrinsic curiosity, and 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.

  • 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. 

  • Kim, K. H., Haber, N. J., De Freitas, J., & Yamins, D. L. K. Learning to attend with progress-based intrinsic curiosity. In prep.

Moral judgment, its perceptual underpinnings, and moral machines

How does moral judgment work, and what can we learn by reverse-engineering it? We have helped uncover three principles of moral psychology: (1) Moral judgments are automatically affected by high-level visual inferences about causality; (2) moral judgments are not only sensitive to the mental states of agents (aka the 'intentional stance'), but also the objective state of the world (aka the 'teleological stance' ); and (3) moral intuitions, in turn, affect various concepts that would appear to have nothing to do with morality -- such as intuitions about whether someone is happy, or caused an outcome.