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Well-Being is Focus of Cognitive Science Conference March 5-7

Published: March 2, 2009

Can happiness be measured? That is just one of the questions expected to be discussed as CSULB’s Psychology and Philosophy Departments, in cooperation with the university’s Cognitive Science Group, Center for Applied Ethics, and the Center for the Advancement of Philosophy in the Public Schools, welcome the return of the annual Cognitive Science Conference, on the topic “Ethical and Social Scientific Perspectives on Well-Being,” March 5-7 in the Karl Anatol Conference Center.

“The past 30 years have witnessed an explosion of theoretical and empirical research on the nature of personal well-being and related cognitive and affective states (self-assessment, desire, pleasure, happiness, and other positive and negative emotions),” explained conference organizer Charles Wallis, director of the Cognitive Science Group and a member of the Philosophy Department since 2000. “In philosophy, ethicists propose increasingly nuanced accounts of both happiness and human well-being, while social philosophers discuss ways of structuring institutions to better promote aggregate well-being. Economists likewise develop hypotheses about how best to structure institutions and incentives to promote aggregate well-being as they seek valid ways to measure it. In psychology, active research programs explore the components, measurement, and promotion of subjective well-being while cognitive neuroscientists explore its biological and neurological bases.

“This conference seeks to bring together a diverse set of scholars, including ethicists, social philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, and economists ranging from graduate students to full professors in order to facilitate a productive and much-needed exchange of ideas,” he continued. “Ideally, participants will gain greater insight into the fundamental questions, methodologies, and results of one another’s separate research programs, allowing each participant to better evaluate the implications of one another’s research for their own work as well as for social policy.”

“It’s also important to remember that this conference is not just for faculty members but also for students,” said Dan Chiappe, member of the Psychology Department and one of the co-founders of the Cognitive Science Group. “Students have gotten a lot from past conferences,” he explained. “They get first-hand exposure to prominent national and international research and researchers in the conference areas. That sort of experience is invaluable for student learning and development.”

Conference presenters will include the University of Alabama’s Erik Angner, the University of Oklahoma’s Neera Badhwar, Florida State University’s Mike Bishop, St. Louis University’s Daniel Haybron, Washington University’s Randy Larsen, the Universitätsklinikum Magdeburg’s Georg Northoff, UCLA’s Golnaz Tabibnia, the University of Minnesota’s Valerie Tiberius and Loyola University’s J.D. Trout.

“Each speaker will approach the issue of the nature of happiness or well-being through his or her own disciplinary methods,” said conference organizer Jason Raibley, co-director of the Center For Applied Ethics who joined the Philosophy Department in 2007. “For instance, ethicists will discuss the importance of well-being for morality and virtue and how they connect with each other,” he said. “Participating economists will discuss recent psychological findings about well-being in terms of forming public policy and whether we ought to think about well-being instead of the gross national product in assessing the health of society and planning public policy. Psychologists will focus on the nature of pleasure and how neural systems undergird affective response in humans.”

According to Raibley, the question philosophers are most interested in is the nature of well-being. “What has a direct bearing on well-being as opposed to mere likelihood or chance of raising the level of well-being?” he asked. “Is well-being constituted by desire satisfaction or the development of one’s capacities or talents? What techniques can we adopt to promote well-being?”

Wallis expects discussion of such issues as the possibility of measuring happiness. “Are people any good at predicting what will or will not make them happy? Are there genetic predispositions toward happiness?” Wallis asked. “Research has shown that the brain gets a bigger reward jolt from socially significant rewards as opposed to monetarily significant rewards. This is even true for apes and monkeys. When researchers reward monkeys at different levels for performing the same tasks, the monkeys that receive lesser rewards become upset when observing the other monkeys getting more grapes for doing the same work. But nepotism is involved. Monkeys are less indignant when a relative gets more grapes.”

“People’s sense of what will make them happy and how happy it will make them is often wrong,” Wallis said. “People often cast whole periods of their lives on the basis of some small, but salient subset of their experiences during that time,” he said. “Even though they might have been happy for a significant part of the time, if they perceived themselves as unhappy, the whole period is remembered that way.” “Such misperceptions often occur when a life episode ends with an unhappy experience,” added Teresa Chandler, member of the Philosophy Department and co-director of the Center for Applied Ethics.

Wallis hoped that both the campus and the surrounding community would participate. “Happiness and well-being research, like so much research in cognitive science, has tremendous potential to directly impact individuals and society,” he said. “This conference provides the university community and the greater Xouthern California community an opportunity to learn about the cutting-edge research in this area. Everyone can benefit from learning about results bearing on how people perceive their own happiness and well-being, whether or not they are good at predicting what will make them happy, what factors can increase happiness and well-being, and what, if any, limits one’s own genetics places on one’s happiness and well-being. These are things that people ought to be thinking about, particularly when we are contemplating a sea change in terms of social policy.”