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Transformative Experiences

English title Transformative Experiences
Applicant Messerli Michael
Number 186151
Funding scheme Ambizione
Research institution Philosophisches Seminar Universität Zürich
Institution of higher education University of Zurich - ZH
Main discipline Philosophy
Start/End 01.11.2019 - 31.10.2023
Approved amount 784'430.00
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Keywords (5)

Preference Change; Decision Theory; Epistemic Transformative Choices; Transformative Experiences; Personal Transformative Choices

Lay Summary (German)

Transformative Erfahrungen sind schwierig zu antizipieren und verändern die eigene Person.
Lay summary


Das Thema der Transformativen Erfahrungen ist junger und intensiv diskutierter Forschungsgegenstand innerhalb der praktischen Philosophie. Das Thema ist auch ausserhalb der Akademie, etwa in ausländischen Medien, auf Interesse gestossen. Es geht darum, dass einige der wichtigsten Entscheidungen, die wir in unserem Leben treffen, wie Mutter oder Vater zu werden oder einen neuen Beruf zu ergreifen, epistemisch und persönlich transformativ sind. Eine epistemisch transformative Erfahrung von „x“ meint, dass „x“ die einzige Möglichkeit darstellt, um herauszufinden, wie „x“ sein wird. Man weiss ggf. erst, wie es ist, als Journalistin zu arbeiten, wenn man die Erfahrung selbst macht. Eine persönlich transformative Erfahrung bedeutet, dass die Erfahrung die eigene Person verändert. Für mich als Mutter oder Vater können sich grundlegende Präferenzen verändern. Gemäss Laurie Paul (Transformative Experience, 2014) stellen uns transformative Entscheidungen vor ein grosses Problem: Sie können nicht rational sein. In diesem Projekt wird ein Modell entwickelt, wann transformative Entscheidungen rational sein können, eine Theorie von Einstellungsänderungen („preference change“) erarbeitet und es werden empirische Daten generiert, wie Menschen über transformative Erfahrungen nachdenken.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 11.12.2019

Responsible applicant and co-applicants



Group / person Country
Types of collaboration
Laurie Paul United States of America (North America)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
Marvin Mathony Germany (Europe)
- Publication
Luca Barlassina Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Publication
David Strohmaier Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Publication
Kevin Reuter Switzerland (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Publication
Peter Schaber Switzerland (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
Colloquium Schaber Individual talk Reasons Trump Coherence - A Study On The Ordinary Concept of Rationality 29.03.2021 Zürich, Switzerland Messerli Michael;
Colloquium Schaber Individual talk Rational Transformative Decision-Making 08.03.2021 Zürich, Switzerland Villiger Daniel;
Berlin-Bern-Zürich-Workshop Ethische Theorie (verschoben wegen Covid) Talk given at a conference Can Decisions Against Preferences Be Reasonable? 10.03.2020 Zürich , Switzerland Messerli Michael;
Research Group Cognitive Science Individual talk The Commitment Based Theory of Preference Change 27.02.2020 Sheffield , Great Britain and Northern Ireland Messerli Michael;

Communication with the public

Communication Title Media Place Year
Media relations: radio, television Entscheiden unter Unsicherheit Online Radio (organisiert von «Reatch – research and technology in Switzerland») German-speaking Switzerland 2021
Talks/events/exhibitions Interkulturelles Verstehen (Alpines Museum) German-speaking Switzerland 2021
Talks/events/exhibitions Gute Absicht, gute Tat? (Schlachthaus) German-speaking Switzerland 2020
New media (web, blogs, podcasts, news feeds etc.) Wie verändern uns Entscheidungen? (Schlachthaus; abgesagt wegen Covid)) German-speaking Switzerland 2020
New media (web, blogs, podcasts, news feeds etc.) Woher kommt Wissen? (Schlachthaus; abgesagt wegen Covid) German-speaking Switzerland 2020
Talks/events/exhibitions Expecting the Unexpected (Stiftung BINZ39) German-speaking Switzerland 2019


Laurie Paul’s book Transformative Experience is currently one of the most discussed works in analytic philosophy and has also made waves outside of academia. Paul’s ideas deeply challenge our best models of decision making. Moreover and importantly, it is some of the most fundamental decisions we make in our lives that do not seem to fit into existing models. To illustrate her central claim, imagine that you are confronted with a choice between staying in Switzerland or moving to a different part of the world. Or suppose you are considering whether to have a child or remain childless. These decisions involve experiences that are transformative in two respects. First, having the experience of x might be the only way to know what it is like to x. For example, having the experience of living in New York may be the only way to know what it is like to live in New York. Second, these experiences might change one's core preferences. Being a mother or a father, for instance, is likely to change one’s outlook on life in many respects. Due to the transformative character of such choices, Paul argues that they cannot be rational. Simply put, we cannot do what we believe is best, all things considered. The crucial question that we tackle in our research, is whether she is actually correct. This project aims to advance our understanding of transformative experiences and decisions that involve such experiences. In order to do so, we will use traditional, formal, statistical and experimental methods. While the main target of the project is to find out whether and when transformative choices fall inside or outside the realm of rationality, the project has seven particular aims: (i) clarify the concept of transformative experience, (ii) reconstruct the challenge to rationality, (iii) provide empirical data on how people deliberate about transformative choices, (iv) analyze the challenges people face with transformative decisions, (v) develop models that can explain under which conditions transformative decisions are possibly (and likely to be) rational, (vi) develop an explanatory account of preference change, and (vii) understand important implications for personal and social matters. A systematic study of transformative experiences and the achievement of the objectives mentioned above will enhance our knowledge of transformative experiences and provide a critical evaluation of the existing philosophical discussions.