Reverse inference

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Chapter 2 endnote 20, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Bread has its own emergent properties, like “crustiness” and “chewiness,” that are not present in its ingredients alone. In fact, if you try to identify all the ingredients by tasting the finished bread, you are in for a difficult time.

Imagine trying to reverse-engineer a croissant—which requires several days to prepare—by eating one and reflecting on its buttery taste or flaky texture. The idea that an experience reveals its ingredients, or the processes by which those ingredients are combined, leads to mistaken views of how emotions are made.

For example, one flavor of the classical view, the classical appraisal theories, assumes you can deduce the ingredients from the product by asking test subjects which evaluations (i.e., appraisals) caused their emotional experience; for example, if you experience an obstacle placed in your path during an experience of anger (like a car cutting you off on the highway), then this is taken as evidence that you must have made an evaluation of whether or not something is interfering with your desires or obstructing your goals. Phenomena that emerge with features that are not shared by their ingredients cannot be reverse-engineered.

For a classic paper on the hazards of reverse inference in neuroimaging studies, see this reference.[1]


Notes on the Notes

  1. Poldrack, Russell A. 2006. "Can cognitive processes be inferred from neuroimaging data?" Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10 (2): 59-63.