Fiery Cushman

Harvard, Psychology

How we know what not to think

A basic problem in the cognitive sciences is that there is just too much to think about. When we choose how to act, some prior process must be responsible for constructing the “choice set”—determining which options will come to mind in the first place. I will present some evidence that people use cached value representations to construct choice sets, and describe a formal model that illustrates why this approach is adaptive. I will then present several studies indicating that moral norms exert an especially strong effect at the point of choice set construction. In other words, we often avoid doing the wrong thing because we are designed to never think of it. Finally, I will describe a rational model of the punishment of negligent acts according to which punishment changes the value assigned to occurrent thoughts, thus preventing future acts of negligent harm.