Adam Morris

Psychology PhD at Harvard University

I study the hidden underbelly of decision making.

Think of a choice you made recently: to tell a lie, or call an old friend, or turn down a date. Why did you do it? How exactly did you make that decision? I study the non-deliberative processes underlying people's choices, from both a scientific and a first-person perspective. In my research, I use experiments and computational models to tackle questions like: How do our thought patterns become habitual? What determines which possibilities enter our consciousness? Is it possible to improve people's ability to introspect on their own choice processes? And personally, I am deeply involved with "mental training" practices which attempt to train introspective acuity and self-awareness. My aim is to integrate the two and develop a science of introspection training.

Research

People make all kinds of decisions without being able to articulate why they made them. How? One strand of my research has explored how people form habits over higher-level cognitive processes, like goal selection, option generation, norm compliance, action sequences, and modal reasoning. A second strand has explored how evolutionary dynamics, game theory, and implicit social learning intersect to make some behaviors, like punishment, intrinsically rewarding. And a third strand has explored how judging the causes of past events might guide people's planning towards future outcomes. (My full CV can be found here.)

I am currently focused on the possibility of introspection training. The standard view in cognitive science is that accurate introspection into higher-order mental processes is unreliable or impossible; people cannot reliably tell you the truth of why they do the things they do. Yet, practitioners of "mental training" techniques -- mindfulness practices, cognitive therapies, self-awareness methods, and so on -- routinely experience what feels like clear, dramatic improvement in their ability to accurately discern their own mental life, and people's self-reported introspective ability predicts numerous aspects of well-being. Are they right? Is introspection a skill that can be trained? I am developing objective measures of introspection accuracy to test whether, and which, mental training techniques can genuinely improve introspective ability, and theoretical accounts of how they might do it. This research highlights the tantalizing prospect of developing a rigorous, generative science of introspection training.

Here's a selection of my papers:

Practice

In my personal practice, I do several types of mental training, which I loosely categorize into three bins. (Disclaimer: My perspective on these techniques is idiosyncratic, so take their descriptions with a grain of salt. Moreover, these techniques have often not been developed with an orientation towards rigorous science or careful experimentation, so take their utility with as much salt as suits your taste.)

Mindfulness approaches

I got my start in mindfulness techniques with a practice called relational meditation (or "circling"). Relational meditation takes a classic mindfulness orientation -- purposeful direction of non-judgmental attention towards present-moment experience -- and applies it to active social interactions. So instead of meditating quietly alone, you're meditating while in conversation with another person (who is also meditating), and talking about what's happening internally as you interact. I became a facilitator of this technique and ran workshops on it for a while.

From relational meditation, I jumped into more classical meditation, started meditating daily by myself, and spent two months living at a secular monastery with Zen Buddhist roots.

Somatic awareness approaches

Through my meditation experience, I became interested in a related set of approaches that I call "somatic awareness" techniques. Psychologists are likely familiar with the idea of "somatic markers": that important decision-relevant information can be encoded in somatic signals like skin conductance or muscle contraction. The claim behind somatic awareness approaches to introspection training is that these signals are happening continuously, can be high-dimensional and richly informative, and, through practice, can be increasingly brought into conscious awareness. The technique that I have explored the most in this space is called "focusing".

Rationalist approaches

Finally, I have been heavily influenced by a third set of approaches that I call "rationalist" approaches. What unites these is that they draw explicitly from experimental psychology and analytic philosophy, and they adopt a relatively more scientific mindset; although they don't run full-blown randomized controlled experiments, they rely on careful reasoning, self-critique, and informal experimentation to develop their methods. In this space, I have been influenced by techniques developed by Leverage Research (in particular "belief reporting"), the Center for Applied Rationality (see their handbook), and Joe Edelman's work (including the Future Togetherness Test Kitchen).

Mentoring, Equity, and Accessibility

I care a lot about teaching & mentoring. I also care a lot about making higher education more equitable and accessible. These two things feel related to me; though structural change is ultimately what is needed to open the ivory gates, in the short term mentorship and guidance-giving is a social good that I am in a position to share.

If you are trying to get into psychology research and are seeking guidance, here's some resources I know of:

  • Psychresearchlist.com maintains a list of resources like paid psychology internships and graduate school info sessions.
  • Project SHORT is a nonprofit offering free mentorship for people applying to PhD programs or research assistant positions.
  • Polygence is an organization connecting high school students with mentors to help them lead independent research projects.
  • Emerging Investigators is a peer-reviewed science journal which publishes research by middle and high school students, supporting them along the way.
  • I'm thinking of running occasional virtual Q&A sessions for people who have questions about getting into psychology research. If that interests you, please contact me.
You can also feel free to reach out to me directly! See below for my contact info.

About Me

I grew up in a suburb of New Jersey, did my undergrad in psychology at Brown University, and have been doing my PhD at Harvard since 2015. From a young age, I thought a lot about introspection and how to understand myself; when I was ten, I confidently declared to my parents that I had identified my five basic personality flaws. I had Tourette's as an adolescent, and the experience shaped my understanding of myself and of how self-awareness might affect well-being. While doing my PhD, I discovered an enclave of people practicing relational meditation, and followed the white rabbit into a world of meditators, cloistered gurus, social-technology developers, and secretive world-savers. I soon found myself in a circling immersion in Boston, an invitational retreat in San Francisco, a board room at NYU, a Buddhist monastery in Vermont, and more. My hope is to systematize and share what I've learned, and to continue learning.

When I'm not thinking about introspection, you might find me hiking in the mountains, folk dancing, playing chess in Harvard Square, or singing in the park.

You can contact me at thatadammorris at gmail.com.