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PBS seminar series

PBS hosts a weekly seminar series aimed at bringing academic and industry experts to present their research with our staff and students. Our goal is to provide a small setting so that the audience can start a dialogue on the subject, meet the speaker, and put their own learning in a wider context.

Unless stated otherwise, the seminar series takes place every Wednesday during term time in QUE.3.28 from 12.00 to 13.00.

Please note: 

  • These events are only for LSE staff and students and spaces are on a first come first served basis on the day.
  • There are no seminars during reading week and school holidays

If you would like to join the mailing list to hear more about upcoming events in the PBS seminar series please email

Michaelmas Term 2019 

9 October: Patrick Haggard, UCL

Voluntary action processes in the human brain

Host: Prof Saadi Lahlou

Volition refers to a capacity for endogenous action, particularly goal-directed endogenous action, shared by humans and some other animals. It has long been controversial whether a specific set of cognitive processes for volition exist in the human brain, and much scientific thinking on the topic continues to revolve around traditional metaphysical debates about free will. At its origins, scientific psychology had a strong engagement with volition. This was followed by a period of disenchantment, or even outright hostility, during the second half of the twentieth century. In this review, I aim to reinvigorate the scientific approach to volition by, first, proposing a range of different features that constitute a new, neurocognitively realistic working definition of volition. I then focus on three core features of human volition: its generativity (the capacity to trigger actions), its subjectivity (the conscious experiences associated with initiating voluntary actions), and its teleology (the goal-directed quality of some voluntary actions). I conclude that volition is a neurocognitive process of enormous societal importance and susceptible to scientific investigation. 

16 October: Daniel Nettle, Newcastle University

The desire for redistribution: Effects of luck, scarcity, heterogeneity and war

Host: Dr Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington

How much should be redistributed from the rich to the poor, and how, are central political questions of modern life. It is sometimes assumed that support for or opposition to redistribution is a stable individual attitude. Using an experimental approach based on designing hypothetical societies, I will show that the very same person will favour different levels and kinds of redistribution under different circumstances: more when getting resources is mostly due to luck; less when the group is socially heterogeneous; more when the group is at war; and less when resources are scarce. The situational shifts trump left or right political alignment, which is a poor predictor of redistribution preferences in this paradigm. However, more right-wing people are more pessimistic about the prospects for successfully implementing the ideal amount of redistribution. I argue that changing public support for redistribution may track changes in the perceived situation of society. 

23 October: Professor Karl J. Friston, UCL

Active inference and artificial curiosity

Speaker: Professor Karl J. Friston, Professor of Imaging Neuroscience/Wellcome Principal Research Fellow (UCL)

Host: Dr Dario Krpan

In the cognitive neurosciences and machine learning, we have formal ways of understanding and characterising perception and decision-making; however, the approaches appear very different. Current formulations of perceptual synthesis call on theories like predictive coding and Bayesian brain hypothesis. Conversely, formulations of decision-making and choice behaviour often appeal to reinforcement learning and the Bellman optimality principle. On the one hand, the brain seems to be in the game of optimising beliefs about how its sensations are caused; while, on the other hand, our choices and decisions appear to be governed by value functions and reward. Are these formulations irreconcilable, or is there some underlying imperative that renders perceptual inference and decision-making two sides of the same coin? 

This talk offers a formal account of insight and learning in terms of active (Bayesian) inference. It deals with the dual problem of inferring states of the world and learning its statistical structure. In contrast to current trends in machine learning (e.g., deep learning), we focus on how agents learn from a small number of ambiguous outcomes to form insight. I will simulations of abstract rule-learning and approximate Bayesian inference to show that minimising (expected) free energy leads to active sampling of novel contingencies. This epistemic, curiosity-directed behaviour closes `explanatory gaps' in knowledge about the causal structure of the world; thereby reducing ignorance, in addition to resolving uncertainty about states of the known world. We then move from inference to model selection or structure learning to show how abductive processes emerge when agents test plausible hypotheses about symmetries in their generative models of the world. The ensuing Bayesian model reduction evokes mechanisms associated with sleep and has all the hallmarks of aha moments.

13 November: Dr Aiyana Willard, Brunel

Religion, Morality, and Trust: the cognitive origins and societal impact of supernatural beliefs 

Speaker: Dr Aiyana Willard, Lecturer in Psychology, Brunel

Host: Dr Michael Muthukrishna

Religious beliefs can be found in every human culture and throughout human history. They have a considerable impact on individual and interpersonal behaviours, and have shaped the development of human societies. This makes understanding religious belief one of the key puzzles of understanding humans and human societies. In this talk, I will discuss the roles cognition and culture play in establishing and maintaining religious and other supernatural beliefs and how these beliefs impact human cooperation and interpersonal trust. I will present evidence that humans are cognitively predisposed towards supernatural beliefs, and that cultural evolutionary processes are necessary to transform our otherwise idiosyncratic beliefs into cohesive religious belief systems. Finally, I will discuss how these religious belief systems can shape cooperative behavior, and through these mechanisms can have impact the growth and functioning of societies.

27 November: Armin Falk *Room Change to CBG.1.07*

Global evidence on economic preferences

*Please note: this seminar will take place in CBG.1.07*

Speaker: Armin Falk, Professor of Economics at the University of Bonn; CEO, briq & Academic Visitor, Nuffield College, University of Oxford.

Host: Dr Ganga Shreedhar

In my talk I will discuss several papers and findings from my Global Preference Survey project. The results are based on an experimentally validated survey data set of time preference, risk preference, positive and negative reciprocity, altruism, and trust from 80,000 people in 76 countries. At a general level, the data reveal substantial heterogeneity in preferences across countries, but even larger within-country heterogeneity. Across individuals, preferences vary with age, gender, and cognitive ability, yet these relationships appear partly country specific. At the country level, the data reveal correlations between preferences and biogeographic and cultural variables, such as agricultural suitability, language structure, and religion. Variation in preferences is also correlated with economic outcomes and behaviors. More specifically, I will show how time preferences are related to mortality and how they affect comparative development, how the gender gap in preferences is related to GDP and country specific gender equality, what the data tells us about the potential validity threat of using so-called WEIRD samples, and how migration patterns “out of Africa” have left their footprints in today’s distribution of preferences.

4 December: Cristian Tileaga, Loughborough University

Speaker: Cristian Tileaga, Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology, Loughborough University.

Host: Dr Cathy Nicholson

In the context of a profound coarsening of political debate in Britain and elsewhere, female Jewish MPs who are active in public life come regularly up against a barrage of abuse and intimidation online. In this paper, I address the various forms and intersections of antisemitism and misogyny against women active in public life. The paper argues that misogyny is a specific class of prejudice that harms the dignity of women by calling into question women’s (human) rights to participation in public life, freedom of expression, and personal safety.

Anti-Semites hate the obstinacy of Jews (one of the oldest sources of anti-Semitism according to Bernard Lazare). Misogynists hate the obstinacy of women active in public life. The two coalesce in the abuse that many Jewish women MPs have been subjected to. I conclude by making the case for the use of intersectional frameworks to rethink violence against women online through multi-categorical lenses.

11 December: Dr Rex Wright, University of North Texas

Fatigue Influence on Inhibitory Control

Speaker: Rex Wright, Professor of Psychology, University of North Texas.

Host: Prof Paul Dolan

I will discuss the role that fatigue should play in determining inhibitory control, arguing that fatigue should not impact inhibitory control directly, but rather should do so indirectly by determining how intensively people resist unwanted behavioral urges or impulses.  An emerging theoretical analysis suggests that fatigue influence on resistance should not be unitary, but rather multifaceted, depending on the degree of fatigue, the magnitude of the unwanted urge or impulse, and the importance of resistance. 

Fatigue should have potential for (1) prompting people to resist more forcefully, (2) prompting people not to resist, or (3) confirming people’s pre-existing inclination not to resist.  This analysis tells us when fatigue should be more and less likely to impair inhibitory control.  It also addresses key concerns that have been raised in relation to the influential limited resource analysis of self-control developed by Baumeister and colleagues.

About Dr Rex Wright

Dr. Wright's research is concerned centrally with determinants and cardiovascular correlates of effort. Building on ideas of Jack Brehm, Paul Obrist and others, he has developed an analysis of motivation intensity that has wide-ranging implications, including ones for health and behavior, e.g., in educational and organizational settings. An abiding interest has been in the manner in which ability factors affect effort and associated cardiovascular responses, with a special focus on fatigue as an ability determinant. Very recent studies have concerned fatigue, cognitive impairment, circadian cycle, and gender influence on effort-related cardiovascular responses as well as determinants and cardiovascular correlates of self-regulatory restraint, that is, resistance against an urge to act in some fashion.  New directions in Dr. Wright's laboratory pertain to a new theory of love and a taxonomy of fundamental motives to help and harm in social contexts.


Christmas break