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The contents of folk personal identity: Morality, essentialism, and the 'true self'

experimental philosophy, cross-cultural studies


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

game theory, evolutionary theory, economic games


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". 


  • De Freitas, J., Thomas, K. A., DeScioli, P., & Pinker, S. Common knowledge, coordination, and strategic mentalizing in human social life. Under review.

  • De Freitas, J.*, Thomas, K. A.*, DeScioli, P., & Pinker, S. (2016) Recursive mentalizing and common knowledge in the bystander effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General145(5), 621–629.

  • De Freitas, J., DeScioli, P., Thomas, K. A., & Pinker, S. (2018). Maimonides' Ladder: States of mutual knowledge and the perception of charitability. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.



Moral judgment 

experimental philosophy, linguistic coding, legal theory


This work makes two overarching conclusions: (1) Moral intuitions affect various concepts that, on the surface, have nothing to do with morality, such as our intuitions about whether someone is happy or caused something. Further, these effects are spontaneously revealed in the language we use to describe events. 2) People's moral judgments do not only assume the 'intentional stance' (i.e., take into account the mental states of each moral agent) but also the 'teleological stance' (i.e., take into account the objective state of the world, regardless of a person's mental states). Specifically, moral judgments of others follow whether they made the optimal decision, even when they had no way of knowing which choice was optimal. 




The perceptual 'roots' of social cognition

psychophysics, machine learning, linguistic coding


This work uses a combination of psychophysical and machine learning techniques to figure out how various socially-relevant perceptual competencies -- e.g., recognizing agents and patients, causal interactions, animacy, and harm -- come to exist in the mind, and how they interface with high-level cognition to produce social inferences. 


  • 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

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



eye tracking, psychophysics, musical theory


  • 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. 

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




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