The psychology of philosophy: Associating philosophical views with psychological traits in professional philosophers

This survey study (n=314) investigated professional philosophers’ worldviews in relation to psychological traits, such as personality, well-being, lifestyle, transformative life experiences, and psychedelic use. Amongst other results, they found an association between Hard Determinism (no free will) and more depression – as well as lower life satisfaction, and that psychedelics use was associated with non-realist/subjective view of moral and aesthetic value judgments, while transformative or self-transcendent experiences predicted theism and idealism as their worldview.


Introduction: Do psychological traits predict philosophical views?

Methods: We administered the PhilPapers Survey, created by David Bourget and David Chalmers, which consists of 30 views on central philosophical topics (e.g., epistemology, ethics, metaphysics , philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language) to a sample of professional philosophers (N = 314). We extended the PhilPapers survey to measure a number of psychological traits, such as personality, numeracy, well-being, lifestyle, and life experiences. We also included non-technical ‘translations’ of these views for eventual use in other populations.

Results: We found limited to no support for the notion that personality or demographics predict philosophical views. We did, however, find that some psychological traits were predictive of philosophical views, even after strict correction for multiple comparisons. Findings include: higher interest in numeracy predicted physicalism, naturalism, and consequentialism; lower levels of well-being and higher levels of mental illness predicted hard determinism; using substances such as psychedelics and marijuana predicted non-realist and subjectivist views of morality and aesthetics; having had a transformative or self-transcendent experience predicted theism and idealism.

Discussion: We discuss whether or not these empirical results have philosophical implications, while noting that 68% of our sample of professional philosophers indicated that such findings would indeed have philosophical value.”

Authors: David B. Yaden & Derek E. Anderson


The psychology of philosophy: Associating philosophical views with psychological traits in professional philosophers

We administered the PhilPapers Survey to a sample of professional philosophers and found limited to no support for the notion that personality or demographics predict philosophical views. We did find that some psychological traits were predictive of philosophical views, even after strict correction for multiple comparisons.


Nietzsche claimed that philosophical views often spring from the instincts and personal life of the philosopher, who then defends the view with post hoc rationalizations.

William James takes a more balanced perspective and poses more specific hypotheses, such as that one’s temperament is stronger than reason in determining one’s philosophical views, and that knowledge about this strong psychological influence is often actively suppressed.

1.1. Experimental philosophy

Experimental philosophy has made some progress in examining psychological traits that impact one’s intuitions on philosophical thought experiments. The majority of eastern and low SES subjects endorsed “really knows” whereas the majority of western and high SES subjects endorsed “only believes”.

The investigation of the psychosocial influences on intuitions in philosophical thought experiments raised a provocative question, but more recent research suggests that intuitions are generally stable across various demographic differences.

Other studies have found that psychological traits can predict some kinds of moral judgments in philosophical thought experiments, but these studies do not address the question of whether psychological traits impact the views that professional philosophers hold.

Some research has been conducted on samples of professional philosophers. It shows that they are no more likely to exhibit various moral behaviors than their colleagues who are professors in other areas of philosophy.

A few studies have used philosophy students to examine how certain traits might relate to intuitions on thought experiments, including the Oxford Utilitarian Scale, the compatibilist intuition about certain cases concerning free will, and the Trolley problem.

In the present study, we explored how psychological traits relate to philosophical views in professional philosophers. The questions within the PhilPapers Survey fit these criteria.

1.2. The PhilPapers survey

In 2009, Bourget and Chalmers launched a study to answer the question, “What are the views of contemporary professional philosophers?”

A factor analysis was performed on thirty views to determine if they grouped according to underlying dimensions. The first factor, labeled “Anti-Naturalism”, was used in the present study.

1.3. The psychology of philosophy survey

The present study consists of a survey designed to be as similar to the PhilPapers Survey as possible, and to complement its findings by including measures of psychological traits.

We tested hypotheses related to James’s tough-minded vs. tender-minded distinction, and hypothesized that participants higher on Conscientiousness and Agreeableness would tend to have more nonnaturalistic beliefs, and that participants higher on Anti-Naturalism would negatively correlate with numeracy and the CRT.

We hypothesized that individuals with transformative experience would be more comfortable with other apparent threats to identity continuity, and that higher numeracy would correlate with consequentialist views concerning normative ethics.

We include exploratory analyses, hope to measure these views in the normal population, and translated the items into non-technical language.

2.1. Procedure

We administered a survey using a link from Qualtrics to 3,683 individuals from the top philosophy programs and some other major universities. The survey included thirty items, a battery of psychological scales and demographic items, and translations of the original items into non-technical language.

2.2. Analysis plan

We compared responses to philosophical views with the frequencies reported by Bourget and Chalmers (2014), computed correlations between various philosophical views and psychological traits, and then reported the results of exploratory analyses. We corrected the correlations for multiple comparisons and other criteria.

2.3. Participants

Several hundred participants provided their consent and began the survey. 331 completed the entire survey, and 264 were identified as Professors, Post-Docs, or Graduate Students in Philosophy.

The sample characteristics were quite similar to those of Bourget & Chalmers (2014). 78% of the sample was male, 86.3% White, and 84.4% politically left of center.

2.4. Measures

The Philosophical Views items come from the 30 questions about core areas of analytic philosophy designed by Bourget and Chalmers (2014). They were administered using the same format used in that study, and were dummy coded into different variables per item, individually representing each possible view.

The thirty philosophical views items from Bourget and Chalmers (2014) were rephrased in non-technical language to facilitate future surveys about these views beyond samples of philosophers.

A brief five factor personality measure was administered. It has two items for each factor: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

The Subjective Numeracy Scale and the Cognitive Reflection Test are measures of self-reported numeracy and interest, respectively. The Cognitive Reflection Test is a three-item test of intuitive thinking as opposed to analytic thinking styles.

Satisfaction with Life is a subjective well-being measure that asks how satisfied one is with one’s life overall.

Gallup surveys ask about overall happiness, and this item has been used in several large-scale measurement initiatives.

Narcissism and loneliness were measured with the Single Item Narcissism Scale and the UCLA Loneliness Scale.

Life Experiences: items related to childhood socioeconomic status, a transformative experience, a self-transcendent experience, and a religious experience.

A survey was administered to participants to determine the relationship between scientific data and philosophical views, and whether or not philosophers should participate in initiatives outside of academic settings to educate the public about philosophy.

Items asked about the impact of temperament and life circumstances on philosophical views, and whether empirical information about these relationships would have philosophical value.

  1. Results

In Table 3, we summarize the frequencies of professional philosophers endorsing various views, and in SM-3 we present correlations between the Translations and the Philosophical Views.

3.1. Correlations between views

We found that the top 10 correlations found in Bourget and Chalmers (2014) are similar to those found in the present study.

3.2. Results of hypotheses

The pre-registered hypothesized correlations were largely not supported, with a few exceptions. The Anti-Naturalism Factor was significantly correlated with less Numerical Interest.

None of the well-being measures were related to Anti-Naturalism, and Endorsing the Normative Ethics view of Consequentialism was not related to Numeric Comprehension or Performance on the CRT.

3.3. Results of exploratory analyses

The survey resulted in a number of additional associations between various Philosophical Views and psychological traits. The correlations between the two variables were slightly different from those found in Bourget and Chalmers (2014), so the results should be interpreted with caution.

3.3.1. Factor analysis

We performed exploratory factor analysis following Bourget and Chalmers (2014), and found that the first factor (Anti-Naturalism) had adequate reliability. We also performed PA using the same sub-set of items and the same rotation procedure, and found that there were 6 factors.

We conducted the same analysis on psychological trait variables at the behest of a reviewer, and extracted two factors, Well-Being and Experiences, which were associated with one another to a moderate degree.

3.3.2. Multiple regressions

We used the newly derived factors as dependent variables in multiple regression to see which items predicted them, and found that God: Theism was the sole predictor of the experiences factor.

When the philosophical views factors were set as dependent variables, several psychological traits predicted them, including professional status, ethnicity, philosophical tradition, region of academic affiliation, gender, loneliness, positive emotion, negative emotion, cognitive reflection test, numeric comprehension, numeric interest, openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, narcissism, life satisfaction, happiness.

A factor analysis was conducted on the philosophical views, but the results could be misleading. A sub-set of items was used for the factor analysis, and the validity of these factors is unknown.

3.3.3. Correlations corrected for multiple comparisons

Correlations can be used to demonstrate the relationship between philosophical views and psychological traits. We have been careful to present correlations that remain significant after correction for multiple comparisons using Bonferroni correction.

While a conventional significance threshold is probably too liberal in the context of this study, the correction for multiple comparisons that we computed is quite conservative, running a substantial risk of false negatives.

The effect size provides a useful guide to the magnitude of the results regardless of significance testing, and is measured by Pearson’s r. Some real-world examples may help to illustrate the practical relevance of these effect sizes.

The following sections list the psychological traits that are correlated with the 70 philosophical views. Demographics. Demographics

The Five Factor Model of personality does not include Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. Neither did Numeracy, Cognitive Reflection Task, or Lifestyle factors remain significant after correcting for multiple comparisons.

Some views were related to various life experiences, particularly Transformative Experience, Self-Transcendent Experience of Self-Loss, Self-Transcendent Experience of Unity, and Religious Experience.

No philosophical views were associated with the notion that temperament has an important impact on one’s philosophical views.

Contextualism about knowledge claims was associated with supporting more public education about philosophy and Naturalism with the notion that surveys have philosophical value.

3.3.4. Translations

The correlation between the technical and non-technical ways of expressing philosophical views in a sample of professional Philosophers is a first step in validating the translations of the original Philosophical Views into non-technical language.

  1. Discussion

This survey results in similar descriptive findings to the PhilPapers Survey. The correlations between philosophical views are quite similar, and all of the directions of correlation are identical to the PhilPapers Survey.

4.1. Discussion of analysis of hypotheses

We found limited support for the hypotheses regarding tender-minded and tough-minded types described by James, and the association between interest in numerical information and a number of philosophical views is puzzling.

We found some support for James’s distinction between the tender-minded and tough-minded types, although the relationships between these philosophical views and the particular psychological traits that we measured were only marginally supported.

We found that the Normative Ethical view of Consequentialism was associated with more Numerical Interest, but did not find evidence to support many of our other hypotheses.

4.2. Discussion of exploratory findings

In this study, we did not find evidence that age, gender, relationship status, income, ethnicity, professional status, or personality had an impact on one’s philosophical views.

Rather than the distinction of James’s philosophical types, we found more evidence related to some of James’s thoughts on free will, like his belief that believing in hard determinism was related to lower levels of well-being.

Theism is associated with having had a religious experience, and also with having had a self-transcendent experience involving unity, which makes no mention of anything religious or spiritual.

Related varieties of experiences have been shown to increase religious/ spiritual beliefs in the normal population, and having a religious affiliation is associated with higher rates of having had such experiences.

We found that the use of psychoactive substances may be associated with non-realism regarding aesthetics and morality, which may have implications for the recreational and therapeutic use of such substances.

Interest in numeracy was associated with a number of philosophical views, including realism, physicalism, consequentialism, and correspondence theories of truth.

4.3. Philosophical implications

The majority of respondents thought that empirical evidence about the relationship between psychological factors and philosophical views would have philosophical value, but many unanswered questions remain. The potential philosophical implications thus serve to frame a future empirical research program as well as a philosophical discussion.

It is possible that certain psychological states provide evidence for philosophical positions, or that certain philosophical beliefs provide evidence for psychological states. This suggests that there may be reliable causal relationships between philosophical views and psychological traits.

The present findings are interpretable along the lines that our rational faculties are impacted by extraneous factors in ways that call our conclusions into doubt. This raises the question of whether the predictability of one’s philosophical views on the basis of one’s psychological traits casts doubt on the reliability.

In this study, we focused on philosophical views, not merely intuitions from thought experiments. We found that a number of psychological traits were related to philosophical views, including an interest in numeracy, well-being, mental health, life experiences, and the use of psychoactive substances.

Psychological findings about philosophy may not have any epistemological significance, but they may reveal ways in which psychological variables affect how individual philosophers create, use, and participate in philosophical methods.

4.4. Limitations

This study was limited by the number of responses to the emailed invitation to philosophy faculty and by the number of comparisons between philosophical views. The authors provide both uncorrected p-values and p-values strictly corrected for multiple comparisons using the Bonferroni method.

Researchers should consider whether philosophers with an interest in empiricism participated in the study and whether they knew the answers from previous exposure.

We believe there may be a distinction between what a philosopher personally believes and the views they professionally accept. Additionally, it is possible that different participants approached the Philosophy of Psychology survey differently, and that psychological factors may have a stronger influence in one domain or the other.

Several decisions made throughout the analysis stem from the precedent set by Bourget and Chalmers (2014). While the coding scheme of Bourget and Chalmers (2014) is sound, future research should likely break with this precedent in order to improve the psychometric measurement of philosophical views.

4.5. Future directions

We hope that our findings can be added to future surveys of professional philosophers, and that we can move beyond cross-sectional, correlational studies.

The current findings can be examined in the normal population and across cultures using non-technical translations of philosophical views. These translations may also be helpful in efforts to educate the public.

The findings of the present study may influence the level of confidence one is willing to grant to a particular philosophical view.

  1. Conclusion

The correlation between philosophical views and psychological factors may not necessarily help us decide the question of their truth, but it does require some explanation.

Given our results, it seems that James went too far when he claimed that temperament was the potentest of all our premises, and that the history of philosophy was a clash of temperaments. It does, however, seem likely that some psychological factors play some role in determining some philosophical views.

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