Francesca Bonalumi successfully defended her dissertation on commitment!

September 28, 2022

Francesca Bonalumi has successfully defended her PhD dissertation on the 26th of September, with Ira Noveck (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) and Patricia Kanngeiser (University of Plymouth) as her external examiners. Below is the "flyer" for the event:


Monday 26 September, 2pm

The Department of Cognitive Science

cordially invites you

to the public defense of the PhD thesis


How we rely on each other:

The perception of commitment in joint activities and communication 

by Francesca Bonalumi



Meeting ID: 951 4605 1291

Passcode: 517228




ADVISOR: Thom Scott-Phillips (University of The Basque Country)

ADVISOR: John Michael (State University of Milan)


Members of the Dissertation Committee:

Eva Wittenberg, Chair, CEU

Ira Noveck, external examiner, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

Patricia Kanngiesser, external examiner, University of Plymouth



People rely on others often and for many things. Friends rely on each other showing up on time when they meet; colleagues rely on other colleagues to do their part of the job; and, in general, people rely on others living up to their commitments. This phenomenon grounding our social life is as natural as puzzling: relying on each other enables mutually beneficial opportunities, but reliance also makes one vulnerable to the whims of those on which they rely. Why and when do people decide to rely on others? How do they manage to rely on others living up to their commitments, when others may have incentives to behave otherwise? In this thesis, I argue that people rely on others doing something when they perceive others to be committed to it. The perception of commitment is based on various cues, including verbal promises, of course, but also more subtle evidence that the fact that a partner is relying is recognised by the partner who commits.
    I will first present a psychological characterisation of the phenomena of committing and relying, suggesting that minimal cues of a commitment initiate a self-reinforcing feedback loop that strengthen the perception of both one’s honouring and a partner’s relying on such commitment. 
    Chapter 1 and 2 empirically investigate what are these minimal cues. In Chapter 1, I present a set of studies which reveal two factors that lead to perceiving commitment: the effort put in a joint activity and a shared history of repeated and successful interaction. In Chapter 2, I show that mutual beliefs about partner’s reliance are crucially involved when perceiving commitment.
    Chapter 3 and 4 address the topics of commitment and reliance in the context of communicative interactions. In Chapter 3, I show that people hold communicators accountable for breaking implicit promises when such promises were relied upon. By contrast, when what was communicated was not relied upon, the audience does not hold communicators accountable even if promises were explicitly uttered. In Chapter 4, I present a study showing how partner’s reliance has an influence on whether denials of implied contents are plausible or not.
    Chapter 5 and 6 shifts the focus to the development of a capacity to recognise commitments, and how children react to commitment violations. In Chapter 5 I investigate whether 3-year-old children recognise appropriate motives to break a joint commitment, and whether they manifest appropriate reactions in such cases (when a partner had a moral rather than a selfish motive to break a previous commitment). In Chapter 6, I investigate whether 6- to-7-years-old children discriminate between different sources when holding communicators accountable for their misleading suggestions.
    Finally, I present two case studies where the perception of commitment plays a key (and problematic) role: the case of sexual consent, and the case of digital communication. I explain how my findings contribute to explain these phenomena and inform policy.